In preparation for the new Project Constellation, which will take astronauts to the Moon and beyond, NASA is beginning to design and develop a concept vehicle that will drive on the Moon so the astronauts can explore the terrain of our closest neighbor.
NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Moon by 2020 in order to set up a lunar outpost where they will perform research to prepare for more distant journeys, such as to the planet Mars.
At the Johnson Space Center, in Clear Lake City, just outside of Houston, Texas, NASA and contractor engineers are working out concepts for the next-generation lunar rover. They started the project in October 2007 with the idea to build a prototype vehicle that could be used with alternative designs.
They based the number of wheels to use on the Mars Exploration Rovers (MERs) Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers were built with six wheels. It has been found that over the past fourteen years of driving around on Mars, if one wheel becomes inoperable, the rovers can run on only five.
In order to turn in the easiest way possible, the engineers came up with wheels that would point independently of each other in any direction. They call such driving six-wheel steering, or “crab steering” because of no need of backing up and other such maneuvers that would be difficult to do on the Moon.
Because of crab steering, the driver would also need to be able to turn 360 degrees around in either direction. And, because it is easier to drive in a spacesuit standing up rather than sitting down, the astronaut’s steering “perch” would be able to pivot 360 degrees, too.
In addition, the truck was designed to be able to lower its frame to the ground and to lower or raise individual wheels or sections depending on the slope going up or down, or other such tricky situations. To keep the overall frame level while moving along a slope, one side could be raised and the other side lowered to maintain a level structural surface at all times.
The prototype truck is just the first of many steps on the way of developing a lunar truck to use while on the Moon’s surface. These features may be included, others may be added, and some on the design may be taken off.
To see images of the prototype lunar truck and other roving technology, go to NASA's “Newest Concept Vehicles Take Off-Roading Out of This World”.
A Video of the lunar truck will air on NASA Television. For scheduling and other information, visit: NASA TV.