While Mars may be significantly behind its sunward neighbor in terms of the number of motor vehicles crawling over its surface, it seems like we’re doing our best to close that gap. Over the last 23 years, humans have sent four successful rovers to the surface of the Red Planet, from the tiny Sojourner to the Volkswagen-sized Curiosity. These vehicles have all carved their six-wheeled tracks into the Martian dust, probing the soil and the atmosphere and taking pictures galore, all of which contribute mightily to our understanding of our (sometimes) nearest planetary neighbor.
You’d think then that sending still more rovers to Mars would yield diminishing returns, but it turns out there’s still plenty of science to do, especially if the dream of sending humans there to explore and perhaps live is to come true. And so the fleet of Martian rovers will be joined by two new vehicles over the next year or so, lead by the Mars 2020 program’s yet-to-be-named rover. Here’s a look at the next Martian buggy, and how it’s built for the job it’s intended to do.
More than a few hackers have put in the considerable time and effort required to build a rover inspired by NASA’s robotic Martian explorers, but unfortunately even the most well funded home tinkerer can’t afford the ticket to send their creation offworld. So most of these builds don’t journey through anything more exciting than a backyard sandbox. Not that we can blame their creators, we think a homebrew rover will look just as cool in your living room as it would traipsing through a rock quarry.
Beyond a few “real” bearings here and there, all of the key components for the rover are 3D printed. [Jakob] did borrow a couple existing designs, like a printable bearing he found on Thingiverse, but for the most part he’s been toiling away at the design in Fusion 360 and using images of the real Curiosity rover as his guide.
Right now, he’s controlling the rover with a standard 6 channel RC receiver. Four channels are mapped to the steering servos, and a fifth to the single electronic speed control that commands the six wheel motors. But he’s recently added an Arduino to the rover which will eventually be in charge of interpreting the RC commands. This will allow more complex maneuvers with fewer channels, such as the ability to rotate in place.
Everyone knows that space is an incredibly inhospitable place, but the surface of Mars isn’t a whole lot better. It’s a dim, cold, and dry world, with a wisp of an atmosphere that provides less than 1% of Earth’s barometric pressure. As the planet’s core no longer provides it with a magnetosphere, cosmic rays and intense solar flares bathe the surface in radiation. Human life on the surface without adequate environmental shielding is impossible, and as NASA’s fleet of rovers can attest, robotic visitors to the planet aren’t completely immune to the planet’s challenges.
As a planet-wide dust storm finally begins to settle, NASA is desperately trying to find out if the Red Planet has claimed yet another victim. The agency hasn’t heard from the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, since before the storm started on June 10th; and with each passing day the chances of reestablishing contact are diminished. While they haven’t completely given up hope, there’s no question this is the greatest threat the go-kart sized rover has faced in the nearly 15 years it has spent on the surface.
Opportunity was designed with several autonomous fail-safe systems that should have activated during the storm, protecting the rover as much as possible. But even with these systems in place, its twin Spirit succumbed to similar conditions in 2010. Will Opportunity make it through this latest challenge? Or has this global weather event brought the long-running mission to a dramatic close?
Few things build excitement like going to space. It captures the imagination of young and old alike. Teachers love to leverage the latest space news to raise interest in their students, and space agencies are happy to provide resources to help. The latest in a long line of educator resources released by NASA is an Open Source Rover designed at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
JPL is the birthplace of Mars rovers Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. They’ve been researching robotic explorers for decades, so it’s no surprise they have many rovers running around. The open source rover’s direct predecessor is ROV-E, whose construction process closely followed procedures for engineering space flight hardware. This gave a team of early career engineers experience in the process before they built equipment destined for space. In addition to learning various roles within a team, they also learned to work with JPL resources like submitting orders to the machine shop to make ROV-E parts.
Once completed, ROV-E became a fixture at JPL public events and occasionally visits nearby schools as part of educational outreach programs. And inevitably a teacher at the school would ask “The kids love ROV-E! Can we make our own rover?” Since most schools don’t have 5-axis CNC machines or autoclaves to cure carbon fiber composites, the answer used to be “No.”
Last week, Hackaday had the chance to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Tours are given all the time at JPL, but ours was special. Steve Collins invited us, and acted as our tour guide, and a new friendship with Michelle Easter got us a look inside the labs where equipment for the 2020 Mars mission is being built.
The Mars Science Laboratory hasn’t had her wheels down for a day and already the Curiosity-inspired builds are rolling in. [Will] and [Doug] built a LEGO model of the Curiosity rover for the Build the Future in Space event at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Everything on this scaled-down version of Curiosity is completely made out of LEGO, including the four powered wheels, motorized mast, and articulated, controllable arm.
The LEGO rover contains 7 NTX bricks, 13 motors, two power function motors, and over 1000 pieces of LEGO held together without any glue. The rover is under remote control from two operators. The driver controls the rotation and direction of the four powered corner wheels, while another operator uses a Waldo-like manipulator built out of LEGO to move Curiosity‘s mast and arm. Each of these controls communicate with the rover over a Bluetooth connection.
We’ve been wondering when we would see a Curiosity-inspired rocker bogie bot, and we’re pleased as punch the first one just happened to be a LEGO build. Having [Will] and [Doug] time their submission to the Curiosity’s landing on Mars is the icing on the cake.
You can see the LEGO Curiosity in action after the break.
Since launching on November 26, 2011, the newest Mars rover Curiosity has been speeding towards the red planet. Its days in the harsh vacuum of space are numbered as Curiosityprepares to land in just a few hours.
The landing of Curiosity at Gale crater is scheduled to be received on Earth at Aug 5, 10:31 pm PDT / Aug 6, 1:31 am EDT / Aug 6, 5:31 am UTC. The latest updates on the success or failure of ramming into the Martian atmosphere should be available on NASA TV and this feed from JPL. There’s a huge bunch of feeds on spaceindustrynews.com, and of course the Twitter for the wonderfully anthropomorphized Curiosity.
If landing a Volkswagen-sized, nuclear powered robot on the surface of Mars isn’t cool enough, we’ll also see a picture of the descent from Martian orbit via the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The Atlantic has a bunch of awesome pictures showing off Curiosity’s preparation for launch. Of course there are videos after the break including one by [Stan Love] explaining why it’s soooooo hard to get to Mars.