Scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, investigating low cost approaches to exploring Mars, tested a small robotic vehicle in rough terrain that is nearly identical to the two Viking landing sites on Mars.
The successful test of Rocky III, a mini-rover, this month in the Avawatz Mountains south of Death Valley demonstrated one of several proposed approaches to future Mars exploration.
Mini-rovers and the even smaller micro-rovers provide NASA planners with a new class of low-cost planetary exploration options, said Roger Bedard, manager of Rover Technologies at JPL.
The small rovers will carry cameras for close-up looks at the surface and to scan the horizon; they will carry micro-machined sensors to test the atmosphere and soil, spectrometers to gather geologic information and seismometers to capture data on crustal motion.
Micro-rovers are defined as robotic vehicles under 5 kilograms in weight (11 pounds). Mini-rovers are larger, up to about 25 kilograms, (52.5 pounds), the weight of Rocky III.
Dr. Matthew Golombek, principal science advisor on the project, said the terrain used in the test has the rock size and distribution of the Viking 2 site on Mars, large boulders strewn across a graveled surface.
Rocky III successfully traversed the rough terrain in two tests, he said. It also was successful in traversing a lava field in the Mojave Desert.
"It was at least a starting point," Golombek said. "We are certain there are basalt (lava) flows on Mars. We are testing this rover for an unmanned sample-return mission."
Don Bickler, an engineer and one of the designers of the rover, said the group wanted also to "test the rover's configuration, the suspension geometry, the ratios of levers and the wheel diameters. We wanted to see if it would confirm the tests we made in the laboratory, to see if in the natural environment this thing would perform as the lab tests said it would. And it did."
The next generation of micro- and mini-rovers, now being designed, will include microsensors to help the machine measure some qualities of its environment.
Because of their small size and low weight, micro- and mini-rovers would be relatively inexpensive to launch to the moon or Mars, Bedard said.
"A new era of space exploration is made possible by advances in miniaturization technology and in distributed communications," said Dr. Giulio Varsi, manager of JPL's Space Automation and Robotics Program. "I believe these advances will make possible less expensive missions and broader participation of people."
JPL developed and tested the micro-and mini-rovers for NASA's Office of Aeronautics, Exploration and Technology.
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