It’s not the fastest or the sleekest, but NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) is definitely the coolest car on the planet — and hopefully, before too long, something like it will be the coolest car on other worlds as well.
The SEV is one of NASA’s concepts for a new generation of flexible vehicles that can transport astronauts across near-earth asteroids and Mars. To see what this might be like, we got inside this 6,600-pound behemoth of a machine for a test run.
As you might expect, driving something that’s designed for traipsing across another planet is an out-of-this-world experience.
Join us on the journey:
We begin in the Mars Yard at NASA's Johnson Kennedy Space Center in Texas, where the SEV currently lives.
It's called the Mars Yard because NASA has decorated it with hills, small craters, and moderate-sized boulders to simulate some of the rugged terrain astronauts might experience on the Red Planet.
The SEV has a number of advanced features compared to the last manned space car, the lunar rover. For starters, it has an enclosed, pressurised cabin complete with sleeping and sanitary facilities, which can accommodate two astronauts for up to 14 consecutive days -- that's a lot of time to explore!
Another great feature are the space suits. They're attached to the back of the vehicle and act as a convenient gateway between the safe, pressurised inside and the suffocating alien atmosphere outside.
Because the suits are already pressurised, it takes about 15 minutes to get in and out of them. This saves astronauts the several hours it takes to prep a suit for space like they do on the International Space Station. It also protects the inside from pesky asteroid or Mars dust that might otherwise get tracked inside and could potentially clog instruments and irritate the lungs.
The other way of getting inside is through the side hatch, which is designed to attach directly to a habitat module, so astronauts can move from the house to the car without exposure to the outside. It's sort of like an in-door car garage.
The SEV isn't the sleekest vehicle around, but it's got moves that'll blow any Ferrari out of the water. All of its 12 wheels can complete a full 360-degree rotation, which means you can move the SEV forward, backwards, diagonally, sideways (handy for parallel parking), and you can even complete a full circle in place.
Here's what an SEV circle looks like from inside. The shaky camera is mostly from the bumpy ride -- it feels more like riding a horse than driving a Tesla.
The sideways motion, called 'crab style,' is great for easy manoeuvring to attach the side hatch to a habitation module.
Since there's no AAA on Mars, NASA wants to make sure a blown tire doesn't leave its astronauts stranded, which is why 12 wheels is much better than four. If a tire blows, the SEV lifts it off the ground and keeps on trucking.
You might think with 12 wheels and insane moves, the control mechanism for the SEV is pretty complex. That's the best part -- it's not! You control this pickup-truck sized beast with a single stick, shown here. Pushing it forward moves the SEV forward, and if you want to turn a circle, you keep your wrist steady and twist clockwise or counterclockwise. It's beats a bulky steering wheel any day.
With easy steering, you have plenty of time to take in the view through the vehicle's spectacularly huge windows. It's a little unnerving though when you're at the edge of a steep cliff, like here.
The battery-powered SEV maxes out at 6.2 mph -- about 2 mph slower than the lunar rover. While that's not very fast, the other features like the pressurised cabin and retractable tires mean the SEV can transport astronauts up to 125 miles from their habitat. That's an incredible improvement from the 6-mile-maximum that Apollo astronauts traversed across the moon.
The vehicle also doubles as a storm shelter. NASA designed it with built-in radiation shielding that can protect astronauts from violent solar events for up to 72 hours. Since Mars has a thin atmosphere that does a poor job of protecting against the sun's harmful, high-energy particles, radiation shielding is a very important feature for keeping astronauts safe and healthy throughout their mission.
Now, compare this with the tripped out rover in the wildly popular sci-fi film 'The Martian,' which is now out on Digital HD and will become available on Blu-ray/DVD on Jan 12. It's pretty similar, which isn't a surprise since NASA was a major consultant for the film. Which rover would you rather drive?
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