October 27, 2008 NASA’s 12-wheeled Small Pressurized Rover raced (for a lunar rover that is) across the moon-like Arizona outback this week at 6 mph (10 kmh) as part of the 11th annual Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). A two-man crew took the buggy on one-day trips to test its performance and comfort, and is scheduled to take it on three-day trips later this week.

NASA is aiming to return man to the moon by 2020, almost 50 years after the last manned moon landing in 1972. This time it’s hoped the astronauts will construct a long-term lunar base and mount larger expeditions. To help with both goals, a new generation of lunar rovers is being designed to facilitate more frequent, convenient and safer lunar travel. While the buggies on the Apollo missions only provided a 6 mile range, the presence of two or more SPRs will provide a range of over 150 miles.

The self-contained module of the rover allows crew to discard their spacesuits, providing astronauts with a greater degree of comfort and allowing them to perform more sophisticated operations. The vehicle is designed for two, but can fit four if the situation demands: astronauts can seek refuge for up to 72 hours in the case of solar particle events, acute suit malfunctions, or decompression sickness.

While astronauts will probably cherish the lax dress code inside the module, a second configuration without the SPR module attached allows them to ride the rover in their suits on one of the vehicle's rotating turrets and get on and off at any time.

Standing at almost 15 feet long and 10 feet high, the vehicle has a payload of 1000kg and features six pairs of pivoting wheels that allow it to crab-crawl over difficult lunar terrain. The modular design also provides the flexibility to add different tools such as winches, backhoes and cranes depending on the particular mission objective.

When the crew is inside the module, the suits are locked into suitports on the side of the vehicle, which keeps the internal space free and clean while reducing wear on the suits. Once inside, it takes less than ten minutes for astronauts to climb back into the suits and leave the module.

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