NASA’s flying all-terrain campervan is out of this world

Those of us of a certain age will be alarmed at the realisation that it’s been well over 40 years since men walked on the moon for the last time.

In fact walking was only part of what astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt got up to on the lunar surface. On the Apollo 17 mission they drove a Lunar Rover almost 36 km during their three-day stay on the moon.

The Lunar Rover looked like an electric beach buggy. It could carry two astronauts, some equipment and lunar samples. It was a pretty basic vehicle for some pretty basic tasks.

Mars mission

NASA now has plans to send astronauts to Mars and its motoring aspirations for the red planet are vastly more ambitious. It’s developing a Space Exploration Vehicle that’s part hi-tech off road camper van, part utility and part science lab. It will transport and house two astronauts on journeys up to 14 days at a time.

The pressurised cabin allows them to work in ordinary clothes while slipping into space suits for outdoor work in just 10 minutes through a “suitport” attached to the outside of the vehicle. It has beds, sanitary facilities and there’s even a shower of sorts.

Its specifications are impressive to say the least:
  • Plug-in electric vehicle with a range of 240 kilometres;
  • 12 wheels that rotate at 360 degrees, giving it a zero turning radius;
  • Weight: 3000kg;
  • Payload: 1,000kg;
  • Length: 4.5m;
  • Height: 3m;
  • Top speed of 19kph in any direction – forwards, sideway or backwards;
  • Astronauts can attach a winch cable, backhoe, crane or even bulldozer blade to it;
  • It can “kneel”, allowing astronauts to examine objects closely without leaving the vehicle;
  • Projected 10 year lifespan with little or no maintenance.
Its specifications are impressive to say the least:
  • Plug-in electric vehicle with a range of 240 kilometres;
  • 12 wheels that rotate at 360 degrees, giving it a zero turning radius;
  • Weight: 3000kg;
  • Payload: 1,000kg;
  • Length: 4.5m;
  • Height: 3m;
  • Top speed of 19kph in any direction – forwards, sideway or backwards;
  • Astronauts can attach a winch cable, backhoe, crane or even bulldozer blade to it;
  • It can “kneel”, allowing astronauts to examine objects closely without leaving the vehicle;
  • Projected 10 year lifespan with little or no maintenance.

Expensive motoring

Developing that sort of technology doesn’t come cheap. NASA has been working on it and testing it since 2008 and the budget for 2010 alone was US$152.9 million. It promises to be one expensive vehicle by the time those wheels start stirring up the Martian dust.

Versatile vehicle

Expensive it might be, but the Space Exploration Vehicle is also incredibly versatile. NASA is planning to mount the same pressurised cabin onto a flying platform for in-space missions like servicing satellites. So that makes it a sort of flying off-road campervan for space exploration I suppose.

NASA is putting a big research effort into developing batteries that are lighter and more powerful than anything currently available. That could have quite a spin-off for electric vehicles closer to home than Mars. The space agency has a history of pioneering all sorts of technology that’s now in everyday use, including LEDs for medical devices, infrared ear thermometers, artificial limbs, anti-icing systems for aircraft, better radial tyres and more.

It’s an impressive track record of technological innovation, but somehow I doubt that a flying off-road campervan will be appearing in a car showroom near you anytime soon.

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