Space & Innovation

NASA Center Shows Off Sleek New Mars Rover Concept Vehicle for Astronauts

A prototype Mars rover, commissioned by the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center, is a far cry from the golf cart-like machines that Apollo astronauts drove around the moon.

Future Mars explorers may have a sharp, badass-looking ride for tooling around the Red Planet.

A working mockup of a potential Mars rover, commissioned by the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center, is a far cry from the golf cart-like machines that Apollo astronauts drove around the moon. The new rover concept looks more like a Batmobile, and is about the size of a small camper, topped with solar panels and outfitted with six 50-inch, open-framed wheels that are designed for maximum traction in the sands of Mars.

As a concept car, this model is never going into space. But it was built to the specs of what a Mars expedition might need, explained retired astronaut Jon McBride, who is on tour with the vehicle.

“We sat down about a year ago and discussed the parameters and requirements for what we thought this thing was going to look and feel like, and this is what we came up with,” McBride said. “They designed it and built it in less than a year.”

The rover is being shown off as part of the center’s “Summer of Mars” program, which aims to encourage public interest in a future landing. It was built by Parker Brothers Concepts, a custom auto designer located near the space center in Port Canaveral, Florida, with input from NASA engineers.

It’s not a high-performance machine. The rover runs around 4-6 mph, a speed that’s comparable to the performance of the vehicles used on the moon during the Apollo program, McBride said. Running beyond that on Mars, where gravity is less than 40 percent of Earth’s, would likely result in the vehicle catching air and endangering the passengers.

“Obviously it’s not meant for speed or agility,” he said. “It’s meant to survive the climate on Mars.”

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The nearly 24-foot rover is being put on display in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and New York this summer. It features four seats up front and a small mobile laboratory at the back, which can be detached and parked while the rest of the vehicle rolls around on its own.

It’s powered by a 700-volt battery, which can drive the 5,500-pound (2,500-kg) vehicle for two to three hours, McBride said. A version to be sent into space would rely more on lightweight carbon-fiber materials and include less metal to reduce weight — and the resulting cost.

“There are some things they are going to have to tweak over the next 15 or 20 years,” he remarked. But he added, “I would bet you’re going to see a lot of the same things.”

NASA has a longstanding goal of putting human footprints on Mars in the 2030s, and SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk has laid out a strategy for getting there as well. But some of the recent findings regarding conditions there hasn’t been encouraging.

Without improvements in engines or shielding, a Mars-bound crew is likely to be exposed to levels of radiation that would retire an astronaut under current standards. Once there, the crew’s risk of cancer from radiation on the surface may be double what previous estimates had suggested. And British researchers reported this month that the ultraviolet radiation that bombards the Red Planet may react with chemicals in the Martian soil to make it toxic to microbial life.

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But McBride, who spent eight days in space as pilot of the space shuttle Challenger on a 1984 mission, said he’s still bullish on space. He said a Mars landing could be accomplished within 15 years of a decision to act.

“I’m a proponent of going back to the moon first,” he said. “The moon’s only two days away. We can live and learn there, learn the technologies and do all the practicing we need there before going to Mars.” That includes developing a “closed-loop ecological system” that recycles everything astronauts use — and like other technological spinoffs from the space program, that’s something McBride said would be useful on Earth as well.

“We’re burying ourselves in garbage and using up all of our natural resources and dumping them in the ground,” he said. “We can’t keep doing that with seven billion people and climbing.”

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