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Three Days in the Desert Tests Lunar "RV"
Desert RATS test

An astronaut and a geologist don spacesuits to test an unpressurized version of a lunar rover concept that enables them to easily disembark and explore. The test was part of the 2008 Desert RATS - or Research and Technology Studies, which was held at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona. Image Credit: NASA

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Two people, three days, 10 cubic meters.

That sums up one of the main tests for this year’s Desert RATS tests at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona. An astronaut and a geologist spent 72 hours living and working in or near the 10-cubic-meter interior of NASA’s newest prototype rover.

The idea was to simulate as closely as possible a geological excursion on the moon’s surface from the inside of the Small Pressurized Rover.

Until recently, the vehicle was operated as an unpressurized rover – a twelve-wheeled, open-air prototype rover driven by a standing, suited crew member from a rotating turret. With the addition of a pressurized module on top, however, the crew members are able to shed the cumbersome spacesuits and steer from inside a small, mobile habitat with all the amenities – bathroom, shower, beds and food.

“It was great,” said astronaut Mike Gernhardt, the principle investigator for the project and one of the two people to spend three days inside the rover. “It was a walk in the park, really. The accommodations are really good. It’s a lot like the space shuttle, but I think more comfortable.”

Of course, all those amenities come in the space-saving variety. The two cockpit seats recline or fold out into beds. The shower is a misting hygiene hose that can be used for sponge baths. The food has to be rehydrated. But Gernhardt said it never felt cramped or confined, and with privacy curtains drawn, it’s almost like having four private rooms.

And that little bit of pressurized volume opens up miles and miles of terrain for exploration.

By exploring from inside the rover – which features large windows and an active suspension that allows the entire rover to rise or lower as necessary to go over obstacles or get closer to interesting rocks – the crew gains days of exploration time over exploring in spacesuits, which are limited to about eight hours. In spacesuits, the crew would have to return home to a central base at the end of the day, limiting the area they could explore to the ground they could cover before the spacesuits oxygen ran out. In a pressurized rover, they can drive for days or weeks, suiting up only when they want to get an even closer look or gather a sample.

Desert RATS test

During the 2008 Desert RATS tests at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, engineers, geologists and astronauts came together to test NASA's new Small Pressurized Rover. The tests showed that using a pressurized rover would enable astronuats to explore more territory on the lunar surface by allowing them to live for days at a time inside the rover as they travel greater distances from their habitat than would be possible in an unpressurized rover. Image Credit: NASA

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“We spent less than half the time in the suits and we were 57 percent more productive,” Gernhardt said. “The vision that I had for this vehicle was achieved and then some.”

Gernhardt isn’t the only one labeling this year’s Desert RATS – or Research and Technology Studies – tests a success. One of the primary questions to be answered in the test was whether geological surveys could be performed effectively from inside a rover. To help answer it geologists were teamed with astronauts and told to learn as much as possible about the geology of the Black Point Lava Flow by driving around in the rover.

Pascal Lee, a planetary geologist with the Mars Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center, spent only one day inside the SPR, but said he walked away from his nine-and-a-half-hour trek as a crewmember very impressed by the rover’s capabilities.

“For a geologist thinking about the best way to explore the moon or Mars, it is a dream come true,” he said. “In terms of your ability to access and move around sites and features of interest, it felt like being in a helicopter that’s able to hover stably. It affords that critical visibility and has that maneuverability, plus the stability that the helicopter doesn’t have. I really think NASA is on the right track with this concept”.

That’s not to say that there were no hiccups or glitches during the two weeks the Desert RATS team spent in Arizona – for instance, they now know that it is possible to change a flat tire in a spacesuit. But then, the glitches are one of the main reasons the tests are held in the first place.

“The lessons learned are the whole point of it,” test director Joe Kosmo said. “It’s best to get the lessons learned here before you go to the moon or Mars and find that you should have caught that earlier.”

› View the Black Point video
› NASA Edge Blog
› Download Analogs Fact Sheet (3.2 MB PDF)
› Download Lunar Electric Rover Fact Sheet (5.1 MB PDF) Note: since this article was published, the Small Pressurized Rover has been re-named to Lunar Electric Rover
› More on Analog Field Tests