We’d Like One of These For Here on Earth. NASA’s New Mobile Mars Laboratory Concept Rover

The Mars Rover Concept Vehicle, unveiled on June 5th to kick off NASA's Summer of Mars. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

When it comes time to explore Mars with crewed missions, a number of challenges will present themselves. Aside from the dangers that come with long-duration missions to distant bodies, there’s also the issue of the hazards presented by the Martian landscape. It’s desiccated and cold, it gets exposed to a lot of radiation, and its pretty rugged to boot! So astronauts will need a way to get around and conduct research in comfort and safety.

To meet this challenge, NASA created a vehicle that looks like it could give the Batmobile a run for its money! It’s known as the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle (MRCV) a working vehicle/mobile laboratory that was unveiled last week (June 5th, 2017) to kick off NASA’s Summer of Mars. Those who attended the event at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex were fortunate to be the first to see the new Mars explorer vehicle up close.

Running from June 5th to September 4th, 2017, the Summer of Mars showcases the planning, components and technologies that will make NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” happen by the 2030s. According to Rebecca Shireman, the assistant manager of public relations for the Kennedy Visitor Complex, the program will also provide a survey of NASA’s studies of the Red Planet.

NASA’s Summer of Mars. which is running until Sept. 4th, will showcase all the planning that will go into NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

As she said in a NASA press statement:

“It’s an all-encompassing effort to review the history of our efforts to explore Mars and look ahead to what is being planned. We hope this will encourage young people to want to learn more about being a part of the effort to go to Mars.”

Astronaut Scott Kelly was also on hand to help unveil the vehicle, which could prove to be the prototype for future off-world transportation.  Kelly also took the occasion to tell audiences about the year he spent aboard the ISS – which lasted from March 27th, 2015, to Feb. 3rd, 2016 – and the vital research he took part in. But in the end, the MRCV was the main attraction of the event.

Measuring 8.5 meters (28 feet) long, 3.65 m (14 feet) wide, and 3.35 m (11 feet) tall, this vehicle is equipped with massive wheels that are designed to handle dunes, rocks and craters – all of which are very common on Mars. It also has a mobile lab attached to the rear, which is capable of being detached for the sake of conducting autonomous research in-situ.

The front end, meanwhile, is designed for scouting, and features life support, navigation and communication systems provided by the Global Positioning System. Rather than relying on gasoline or a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTP) like the Curiosity rover, the MRCV relies on an electric motor which is powered by solar panels and a 700-volt battery.

The building of the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle. Credit: Parker Brothers Concepts

While it is not likely to be seeing the red sands of Mars in its lifetime, it is hoped that future generations of astronauts (including those who make the journey in the 2030s) will rely on mobile research labs like this one in order to explore the Martian surface, and use the mobile laboratory to conduct research whenever and wherever its called for.

To the casual observer, this vehicle may look a little Batman-esque. Not surprising, considering that the vehicle was built by the same people who built a replica the Batmobile featured in the Christopher Nolan remakes – Parker Brothers Concepts of Port Canaveral. To build the MRCV, they incorporated input from NASA experts to ensure that it was built with the conditions and resources of Mars in mind.

Between mid-July and August, NASA will be conducting a tour along the eastern seaboard, showcasing the MRCV in several major cities. But before it ships out, people will have a chance to see it at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for a few more weeks. After the tour is complete, the rover will return to the visitor complex to be part of the new Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) attraction opening this coming fall.

For a full list of the attractions and events taking place at the Kennedy Space Center during the Summer of Mars (or to book tickets online) be sure to check out their website.

The Kennedy Space Center’s Rocket Garden at sunset. Credit: NASA

I do wonder, would it be too much to hope that NASA will start working on a civilian model of this vehicle? I can imagine plenty of people around the world would be willing to pay good money to have something like this in their garage! And who doesn’t like the idea of being able to do a little off-roading followed by some in-situ research?

Further Reading: NASA, Kennedy Space Center