March 3, 2008 NASA has released images of its latest lunar exploration concept vehicle - a six-wheeled, variable height, stand-to-operate surface rover prototype designed to provide ideas for future designs as part of the long-term goal of establishing an outpost on the moon by 2020.

The project began with a "throw away the book" directive with the purpose beng to engender new ideas and not get bogged down in referring to the designs of previous off-world rovers like Spirit and Opportunity (which incidentally will soon celebrate its fourth full year of exploring the surface of Mars).

"To be honest with you, it was scary when we started," said Lucien Junkin, a Johnson robotics engineer and the design lead for the prototype rover. "They tasked us last October to build the next generation rover and challenge the conventional wisdom. The idea is that, in the future, NASA can put this side-by-side with alternate designs and start to pick their features."

Built at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, each wheel on the new prototype vehicle has independent steering to enable "crab crawling" on the face of steep craters and other challenges presented by the lunar terrain, as well as having advantages for unloading and docking manoeuvres. Having six-wheels also means that the rover has more chance of continuing to function if something goes awry with one or two of the wheels - a point already proven on Mars.

The doorless, open design and "stand-to-operate" configuration makes it easier for astronauts to operate the vehicle (try squeezing into a Mini with a space suit on) while the height variation offered by the active suspension also makes it easier for astronauts to climb on and off. The steering section os also able to rotate through 360 degrees so that operators don't have to turn when using the independent steering.

"The Apollo astronauts couldn't back up at all because they couldn't see where they were going in reverse," said Rob Ambrose, assistant chief of the Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division at Johnson. "If you have a payload on the back or are plugging into something, it could be really important to keep your eyes directly on it."

A new rover that can drill and collect three-foot samples of soil and rock using a laser light camera to select a site for drilling is also in development. This kind of technology is necessary for the task of detecting water and oxygen on the Moon's surface.


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