Black Point, Arizona: NASA unveiled a new lunar rover on Friday whose design may well transform space exploration as it would allow astronauts to roam large distances on the moon without donning cumbersome spacesuits. NASA is aiming to return to the lunar surface by 2020.
The Small Pressurized Rover Concept vehicle resembles a small, futuristic recreational vehicle mounted on six sets of wheels - 12 in all. It is currently being tested in a rocky lava field in northern Arizona, which resembles the surface of the moon.
NASA scientists have described the vehicle as "the next generation of lunar exploration." The battery powered rover travels at speeds of up to 6 mph (10 kph).
According to NASA it is part of a range of systems and equipment being developed for the space agency's planned return to the moon over the next decade.
NASA plans to build a permanent manned base on the moon's surface as a prelude to deep space exploration missions to Mars.
The prototype vehicle has a pressurized cab and comes with leather seats and bunks. It would allow a crew of two astronauts to take extended exploration trips for up to two weeks at a time, covering distances of up to 625 miles (1,000 km), scientists said. The crew would forego spacesuits while in the vehicle. To step outside, they would slip into spacesuits mounted on the outside of the vehicle through special hatches in the rover, officials said.
"You are only in a spacesuit when you need to be on the surface picking up rocks," said astronaut Mike Gernhardt, a veteran of four shuttle missions and a pioneering spacewalk. Speaking to reporters he said, "So all the time that you are doing observations ... you can be inside the pressurized environment in a comfortable warm shirt-sleeve environment instead of in a spacesuit."
The vehicle is also fitted with large windows offering extensive views of the terrain.
"It really enables much more exploration, much more productivity, and frankly (it's) a lot safer than we had when we went on the Apollo programme." he said. "This is the future."