Tue, Sep 21, 2010 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE : NASA testing Mars-type rovers in Arizona desert


The All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE), a prototype heavy-lift utility vehicle to support future human exploration of extraterrestrial surfaces, moves across the northern Arizona desert last Wednesday


It may not have all the creature comforts, but Aaron Hulse considers his space exploration rover a pleasant home away from home.

That is crucial as he and other NASA experts spend days together in the Arizona desert, simulating the arid surface of some distant planet or asteroid — complete with a dormant volcano.

“You just have to get comfortable with being close in here,” Hulse said, speaking matter-of-factly about the seven days that he and a NASA colleague spent recently living in the rover’s cramped quarters.

“The seats fold down, and it’s actually comfortable,” the 29-year-old said, motioning to the living space behind him as he piloted the six-wheeled vehicle sideways and backwards over rough terrain.

Hulse and a team of NASA engineers and scientists have worked many hours in the last two weeks in such maneuvers, putting the rover and other space vehicle prototypes through their paces.

“It’s quite nice,” Hulse said.

“When we have some extra time, we watch movies, we play games, we can do whatever kind of thing we want to do,” he added, bringing the bumpy ride to a halt.

The NASA team has wrapped up its Desert RATS Analog mission, an intensive series of tests of new aerospace equipment and technology. This year marks the mission’s 13th year, held at the Black Point Lava Flow test site in the northern Arizona desert.

The Desert RATS project, short for Research and ­Technology Studies, is part of ongoing research by NASA to develop cutting-edge space technology for use in future manned deep space missions.

The project allows the US space agency to bring its work out of the laboratory to be tested in the field, where the steep hills and the dust from dry river beds duplicates the harsh conditions on the Moon and other planets.

“Coming out here allows us to really stress the systems,” said Rob Ambrose, a project scientist.

Ambrose and other RATS mission team members were eager to show off the new hardware, including advances they’ve achieved in Robotics technology. A “robonaut,” or humanoid robot, developed by NASA will fly on a future space shuttle mission and assist crew members before the shuttle project is scrapped.

“This is practice, in a very realistic environment,” said Michael Gernhardt, a NASA astronaut who has flown on several space shuttle missions.

Gernhardt said the rovers had traversed more than 150km in the past two weeks in the field and had held up well on the difficult terrain, which includes several extinct volcanoes.

The field mission included tests of a new exploration module for scientific research adaptable to habitats on distant planets or asteroids, equipment for compositional analysis of rock samples and for medical emergencies in space.

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