Popular Dumont Dunes OHV Area helps NASA prepare for Mars exploration

A six-wheeled rover with legs attached to a small metal base and sensors on top

In an area where one is most likely to see off-highway vehicles, you wouldn’t expect to see rovers traversing the sand dunes. NASA officials obtained a Lands Use Permit from the BLM Barstow Field Office to test various applications of their prototype rover, nicknamed “Scarecrow.” This will give them a better understanding of how their actual rover, “Curiosity,” will traverse similar conditions on Mars. NASA Scientists from Pasadena, Calif. chose the Dumont Dunes OHV Area for testing, because the dunes are believed to be very similar to those located at the landing site. Dumont is also somewhat close to the research facilities, and the area is classified as an open-use area, which makes the permitting process easier to complete. Mickey Quillman, Acting Field Manager for BLM Barstow said, “This was an extremely interesting opportunity. Our field office helped out NASA by providing an opportunity to test equipment that is going to be used for space research on Mars.”

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Two rovers in the sand move around obstacles
Photo by Rusty Gates, Barstow Field Office  Scientists gather data to see how Scarecrow (the far rover) traverses the sandy slope.

Curiosity was launched on November 26, 2011 and will travel an estimated 354 million miles before reaching Gale Crater on Mars.  Curiosity is tentatively scheduled to land on Mars in August of 2012. It will then gather data, such as photos and soil samples, for a minimum period of one Martian year, which is almost two years on Earth (98 weeks). When Curiosity lands on Mars, communication will be through radio relays — in which one-way radio transit time between Earth and Mars is approximately 13.8 minutes. As a result of this time lapse, the rover is not being controlled with joy-sticks by NASA Officials here on Earth, as it may need to take immediate evasive maneuvers — such as changing directions to prevent going over a cliff. Specially designed software inside the rover gives it the ability to choose alternate routes of travel. The Rover’s top speed on flat, hard ground is 1.5 inches per second.  However, under autonomous control with hazard avoidance, the vehicle has a slower average speed.

The rover was designed to be capable of exploring up to 12 miles of terrain during the prime mission. Curiosity has a 7-foot robotic arm to deploy instruments to collect powdered samples from rocks, scoop soil, prepare and deliver samples for analytical data, and brush the surface.  Color cameras will also be used to collect the rover’s surroundings in exquisite detail and with motion. Power for the rover consists of a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries.

The rover from another angle
Photo by Rusty Gates, Barstow Field Office

The spheres on top of Scarecrow were added to the prototype to collect numerous data from the surrounding cameras and equipment as it traverses up and down the sand dunes. The rover is 14 feet, 9 inches long by 9 feet 8 inches tall and on earth weighs 1,982 lbs. but on Mars will have about 1/3 of the gravity as compared to that on Earth. Curiosity, the actual rover already en route to Mars, is equipped with a 7-foot robotic arm with various attachments and two megapixel cameras on a mast.

Another rover, this one squatter with attached wires
Prototype of the rovers, “Spirit and Opportunity” — the first rovers exploring Mars in January of 2003. The last communication with Spirit was on March 22, 2010, and communications with Opportunity still continue today.   Photo by Rusty Gates, Barstow Field Office.

The public can visit http://www.nasa.gov/ntv to learn more about NASA. More information on the Curiosity rover is athttp://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html.

Dumont Dunes is popular for OHV open riding, as well as for commercial filming and equipment testing. Dumont Dunes is approximately 35 miles north of Baker, Calif. on Highway 127, adjacent to Death Valley National Park.

Front view of the second rover

– Rusty Gates, Outdoor Recreation Planner, BLM Barstow Field Office (May 15, 2012)

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