Mars Rovers and Lunar Chariots: NASA’s radical plans to explore the Red Planet (PHOTOS, VIDEOS)
NASA / Reuters

The race to send a human crew to Mars is well and truly on, but how will the first explorers survey the terrain when they arrive? NASA has been working on a number of vehicles that could transport astronauts – and even some that might help deepen their understanding of the Red Planet.
One such project is a six-wheeled Mars rover unveiled at Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week.

As a concept vehicle, the hulking Batmobile-like mean machine is unlikely to ever actually make it to Mars. However, the mammoth rover, standing 11ft (3.5 meters) tall and seating four people, gives an interesting insight into the way the US space agency is thinking about future missions.

“The next generation of space explorers could be traveling and working in high-tech mobile lab similar to [the concept vehicle],” NASA said. “[This rover] features life support systems, navigation and communication systems, design and materials that relate to conditions and resources on Mars.”

So if the six-wheel drive vehicle is just one of the options, what else might NASA cook up for those brave enough to venture to alien worlds?

Here are five prototype machines proposed by the US space agency:

1. Mars Flyer
One way crews could survey the Martian world is by using a drone.
Under development at NASA’s Langley Research Center, the ‘Mars Electric Flyer’ is being designed to fly in the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere.

Powered by battery, it is hoped the drone will be able to carry out vertical takeoff and landings. The plan is to send the autonomous craft, packed with mapping systems, on board a future Mars rover.
2 Mars Rover 2020
This rover is one that NASA definitely intends to use. In fact, the space agency has already narrowed down three potential landing spots for a mission to Mars in 2020. It is hoped the drone will assess the climate and lay the groundwork for human exploration.

About the size of a small car, the rover has wheels and ‘legs’ to get around, and is equipped with cameras and internal sensors to navigate the difficult terrain.
3. Lunar Electric Rover (LER)
Also known as the Small Pressurized Rover, the lunar vehicle was tested by NASA in 2008 for missions to the moon.

Resembling a minibus, the LER has yet to make it to the moon since no such mission is currently planned. However, the unusual looking vehicle may come in handy for Mars excursions. Mostly made up of a pressurized cabin, the LER can attach cranes, bulldozer blades and winches to its chassis.
The craft can sustain astronauts for up to 72 hours, protecting them from extreme environments.
4. Prandtl-m plane
Talked up by NASA in 2015, the Prandtl-m plane has been mooted as a possible feature of future Mars missions. The glider, which has a 24-inch wing span, is too small to carry humans.

But NASA says it may be used to survey the Martian landscape, potentially as soon as 2022.
5. Lunar Chariot
Similar in design to the Lunar Electric Rover’s chassis, the Chariot is an unpressurized means to get around rough terrain.

Equipped with six wheels that can turn in any direction, the platform carries a standing astronaut and can rotate 360 degrees. NASA says the machine was built to make “off roading easy”.


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