The history behind the lunar rover is amazing when you dive into what was achieved in a relatively short time. Apollo 15 set the stage for the current day wonder known as the Mars 2020 Rover, but let’s first take a look back at where the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LVR) came to be.
During the planning of the Apollo 15 mission, the original game plan was to send up the LVR on a separate rocket keeping the lunar module on its rocket. The reality of budgets at the time forced NASA to rethink the plan and Boeing, the company that ultimately built the LVR designed it to fold away into one of the sides of the lunar module like an origami. With the last-minute plan change of combining both the lunar module and LVR on the same rocket, this left Boing 17 months to design, test, and deliver a solution in which they spectacularly succeeded.
The LVR had a top speed of 8-11 miles an hour with motors on all four wheels that could all turn with single wheel motor maneuverability. The theoretical range of the rover was 57 miles, but none of the Apollo missions pressed that ceiling with Apollo 17 traveling 22.3 miles. That mission was the final one in the program which concluded in 1972.
Video credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Fast forward to 2019, 47 years after the Apollo program and pioneering companies such as SpaceX have reignited mass appeal and excitement into space travel and exploration once again. Significant advances in technology have helped to usher in a much more complex rover too.
The Mars 2020 rover is slated to launch out of Cape Canaveral via an Atlas V-541 launch vehicle between July 17 – August 5, 2020, to embark on a seven-month mission to reach mars by Feb. 18, 2021. Once the spacecraft carrying the rover reaches Mars, touch down will occur in the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area full of cliffs, boulders and other treacherous landscape. Unlike the rover missions during the Apollo program where they essentially piggybacked on lunar modules, the Mars 2020 rover will be lowered towards the surface of Mars via a sky crane descent landing system which includes a parachute. JPL, the team behind the newest rover, has developed a system to greatly reduce risk of the rover ending up in the side of a cliff or on top of a large boulder with this new landing approach. The system, Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) will allow the rover to land in a safe manner autonomously. The TRN contains two different systems: the Lander Vision System and the Safe Target Selection System. JPL is confident that they have performed enough landing tests, 659 in total in various earth-bound locations such as the Mojave Desert and Death Valley to be more than ready for the mission.
While on the surface of Mars, the rover will perform geological assessments by collecting samples of rock and soil while preparing them for future collection by a subsequent return mission. To help the rover move around on mars, the 110-watt electrical system will be powered by plutonium, otherwise known as the Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, or MMRTG. Besides the electricity provided by the system, it will give off a fair amount of heat to help protect various rover systems in the cold mars environment.