desertratnasa

During the 2008 Desert RATS tests at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, engineers, geologists and astronauts came together to test the surface version of the Space Exploration Vehicle. Image Credit: Regan Geeseman

Most of the prototypes for the vehicles we enjoy today looked like exactly what they were – older types of vehicles with something new strapped on.  Meet the SEV – it’s still being developed, but NASA’s perfunctorily named Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) looks like the first step towards practical spacecraft design that doesn’t borrow from older, more familiar vehicle designs.   The new SEV, meant for space exploration starting in 2025,  looks more like a proper spaceship, and the design parameters have changed a bit from older exploration vehicles – and it’s the ultimate in off-road.  Waaaay off-road.

The core of the vehicle is a habitat pod that can be attached to different kinds of propulsion frames.  A space frame and a surface exploration frame are being tested so far. The surface exploration version of the SEV has the cabin mounted on a chassis, with wheels that can pivot 360 degrees and drive about 10 kilometers per hour in any direction. It’s about the size of a pickup truck (with 12 wheels) and can house two astronauts for up to 14 days with sleeping and sanitary facilities. Likewise, the in-space version of the SEV would have the same pressurized cabin on a flying platform; it too would allow two astronauts to stay on-site for 14 days.  It would be pretty cramped, but it beats having a separate lander and rover system.  And because it can kneel to get a closer look at features on the ground, astronauts can get a much better look at things without having to suit up and disembark.

If they do want to go outside, though, they don’t need to use the airlock.  Instead, the SEV has “suit locks”.  The suits are stored on the outside of the vehicle, essentially just bidedal exploration craft in their own right which dock with the main cabin.  Getting in and out of a suit takes only about ten minutes.  The SEV also features a variety of new technology: new batteries, new fuel cells, advanced regenerative brakes, active suspension, gaseous hydrogen/oxygen RCS system, automated rendezvous and docking, and new tire technologies, just to name a few.  A lot of this is the same stuff used to make hybrid commercial automobiles. To meet NASA’s requirements, though, the flight rover will need a 200 W-hr/Kg battery, so a big technology development push is underway.  Once they figure this out, it won’t be long before we see the same kinds of technological advances in terrestrial electric vehicles.  Put in a regular car, the same kind of battery would give it the ability to travel 500 miles on a charge, something that isn’t possible with current commercial battery technology.

David Coan, wearing a Mark III spacesuit, exits NASA’s multi-mission Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) during an asteroid mission simulation at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Aug. 30, 2012. - See more at: http://www.space.com/17412-nasa-mock-asteroid-mission-2025-tests.html#sthash.gT7AGQId.dpuf

David Coan, wearing a Mark III spacesuit, exits NASA’s multi-mission Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) during an asteroid mission sim at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Aug. 30, 2012.

The surface SEV is designed to require little or no maintenance, be able to travel thousands of miles climbing over rocks and up 40 degree slopes during its ten year life. The vehicle frame was developed in conjunction with an off-road race truck team and was field tested in the desert Southwest with 140 km of driving on rough lava.

Remember that what you’re looking at here is just some of the prototype work done since 2008.  One they get something close to done, it’s going to look a lot cooler than this, and will have a lot more capability.

That’s the great thing about being an SF fan.  You see all this stuff coming decades away.  From our perspective, it’s what passes for normal.  Still, in all, we’re very excited about the SEV and what its appearance and capabilities might become in the next five years.

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