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Mars Rover Concept EV
NASA illustration shows conceptualized Martian Rover designed to be combination habitat, laboratory and all-terrain vehicle.

Roving Mars By EV

Mars Society sponsors competition for Analog Martian Rover.

By Bill Moore

One thing is for certain, when man finally does reach the Red Planet, the vehicles our explorers will drive will have to be propelled by something other than an internal combustion engine. The reason is quite simply. The atmosphere on the surface is Mars is equivalent to that of earth at 130,000 feet in altitude. There is oxygen there, but so very little as to be useless for combustion.

Instead, the first manned rovers on Mars are likely to be EVs of some sort, initially powered by advanced batteries or fuel cells.

To find out what it will take a build and operate a Martian rover, the Mars Society is funding a competition among three university teams to build a Mars Analog Rover. An analog is not an actual prototype vehicle, but an conceptual equivalent that can operate on terrain similar to Mars and enable "astronauts" to carry out exploratory missions for extended periods of time.

The three teams selected out of twenty applicants are constructing their rovers out of converted gasoline-powered vehicles. Two teams, Team Ares in Canada and Team MARSupial in Australia are using converted cargo vans and one, the University of Michigan is using a FMTV military truck. The Mars Society of Poland is also developing a similar Analog rover.

The rules of the competitor are demanding, to say the least. Each team's analog rover must be capable of the following:

Perhaps equally daunting is the budget each team has to work with, a mere $10,000. Teams are relying on sponsors to help defray their costs.

Despite their limited financial resources, the teams have high ambitions, especially the University of Michigan, which envisions two vehicles, the first called "Everest" after the highest mountain on Earth. The second vehicle they have named Olympus after the highest mountain -- actually the largest known volcano in the solar system -- on Mars. In presenting their winning concepts to the Mars Society last month in California, the Michigan team proposed that Olympus be powered either by a methane gas hybrid-electric drive or a fuel cell electric-drive.

While both approaches will work in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of Earth, only the fuel cell seems the most practical for an actual Mars Rover. Assuming there is accessible resources of water on Mars -- which is looking increasingly likely based on the latest photos and data from Martian orbiters -- a manned expedition could use the weak sunlight of Mars to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen to produce the fuel necessary to power the Rover.

We will see sometime next year whether this concept works when AeroVironment's Helios solar-powered research aircraft goes aloft for extended night-time operation off Hawaii, powered by small, self-contained fuel cells.

In the meantime, the three teams are slated to test their analog rovers next year with the Discovery Channel on hand to video tape the experiment. Stay tuned, the future of EVs on Mars looks promising.

Team Links:

University of Michigan: http://marsrover.engin.umich.edu

Team MARSupial: http://www.marssociety.org.au/hop.shtml

Team ARES: http://chapters.marssociety.org/toronto/rover/

Times Article Viewed: 6086
Published: 08-Sep-2001

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