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Monster Trucks on Mars

by Patrick L. Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

We all know what Mars rovers look like now: Robotic platforms, bristling with scientific instruments, trundling along on small metallic wheels. Planetary rovers of the future, however, might look a little different-like miniature monster trucks!

Enormous, inflatable tires can easily roll right over the rocks and rugged terrain of alien planets, just as they bound over old cars like as many speed bumps.

That's the idea behind a novel concept for robotic planetary rovers known as the "big wheels inflatable rover." Unlike rovers similar to the Sojourner robot that explored the surface of Mars in 1997 that depend on instructions sent from Earth or complex programmed intelligence to steer through rough terrain, this rover has three beach ball-like tires roughly five feet across that make it a true off-road vehicle.

"We sent this rover out to Death Valley, to a place called Mars Hill that has a general geological formation like Mars, and nothing could stop it," says Jack Jones, the mastermind of the inflatable rover concept at JPL. "It just kept going and going and going."

Lots of current research is devoted to developing advanced robotic intelligence that allows rovers to detect rocks in their path and maneuver around them. The alternative to such on-the-spot intelligence is tedium: Ground controllers on Earth working out the maneuvers by hand and waiting an hour or more for the instructions to travel to the distant planet.

A "big wheels" rover would need such computer intelligence to avoid very large boulders, but Jones asks, "Why worry about every little rock, pebble, and crack when you can just roll right over most of them?"

Jones imagines a scenario where multiple inflatable-wheel rovers could be sent out to explore the Martian terrain-easily and quickly traversing the rugged terrain. Samples gathered by the rovers could be returned to a central, stationary laboratory module for detailed analysis.

"The Martian surface is really very, very rough with a lot of rocks, and to be banging this laboratory equipment up and down over all of these rocks aboard the rovers doesn't make much sense," Jones says. "I suspect it might be better to leave it in a central location."

At the moment it's all very speculative; NASA currently has no definite plans to send inflatable rovers to Mars. But who knows, one day monster truck-like vehicles could be zipping over Mars' rough, red surface.

Kids can baffle their friends with a robot puzzle (including a "Big Wheels" rover) they make themselves at http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/robots/robot_puzzle.htm .  For adults, find out more about NASA's inflatable rover program at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/adv_tech/rovers/summary.htm .

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


The "Big Wheels" inflatable rover doesn't mind a few boulder-sized rocks, no matter what planet they're on!


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