Headlines > News > Rovers in Space – On Moon and Mars – Past, Presence and Future (Part 1)

Rovers in Space – On Moon and Mars – Past, Presence and Future (Part 1)

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Thu Nov 29, 2007 1:26 pm
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The Past

While a “conventional” planetary mission is already very difficult and complex, a rover mission tops these difficulties by far. Additionally to the tasks of launching, keeping the probe alive in deep space and surviving reentry and landing, a rover have to be controlled either by human remote control or by automatic measures while driving through rough terrain up to dozens of light minutes away from Earth.

Of course, the additional efforts make sense. While a conventional lander is limited to at best a few metres for scientific work, a rover can drive to interesting places and can compare a lot of different locations. A further benefit of the mobility is that the landing procedure can be kept simpler and no precise-landing is needed.

The first rovers used in space were developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s. While the first launch attempt failed already shortly after lift-off, the next two missions were successful.

Lunochod 1 was launched in November 1970, followed by Lunochod 2 in January 1973. The design was basically the same; Lunochod 2 only got a third front camera.

Lunochod
The rovers weighed about 750, respective 840 kilograms and had about the size of a golf cart. They were radio-controlled by a five-person crew and were capable of driving up to 2-3 kilometres an hour.

They got energy by batteries and solar cells on their top. During lunar night, the rovers were heated by a Polonium heat source while operations were paused. They featured 8 wheels, each driven by its own electric motor and about 40 cm in diameter.

Lunochod 1 was operated for 11 months and drove 10540 metres, Lunochod 2 travelled 37 kilometres in about 5 months. They both delivered tens of thousands of TV images and high resolution pictures.

Scientific instruments included cosmic ray detectors, X-ray spectrometers, penetrators and laser devices.

After these successful missions it nonetheless took nearly a quarter century until the next rover was underway.

Launched in December 1996, Mars Pathfinder arrived at Mars on July 4, 1997 and delivered the shoe-box sized rover Sojourner. It has a mass of about 11.5 kilograms and was driven by six wheels.

Mars Pathfinder - Sojourner
Power was supplied by solar cells on its top and by battery during night. While basically a technology demonstrator for the later Mars Exploration Rovers, Sojourner survived until September 27, 1997 and travelled some 100 metres.

Sojourner was controlled by a mix of autonomous driving and control commands sent by Earth. Due to its small size the rover had a difficult life with several times facing too large rocks. But the tiny Sojourner passed all these challenges successfully.

The science pool included an X-ray spectrometer, a laser striper hazard detection system and several rover monitoring systems like accelerometers and potentiometers.

The next part will cover the Mars Exploration Rovers, the upcoming Mars Science Laboratory and other future rovers, like potential Lunar Google X-Prize rovers.

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