Innovation


Cars on Mars.

23 July 2020

Ahead of the launch of the Mars Perseverance Rover, we take a look at the history of space cars and technologies they might share with your Mercedes-Benz.

Innovation


Cars on Mars.

23 July 2020

Ahead of the launch of the Mars Perseverance Rover, we take a look at the history of space cars and technologies they might share with your Mercedes-Benz.

A space car on Mars

An illustration of NASA's Perseverance rover analysing a rock on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Is there life on Mars? NASA is hoping its next-generation rover, the Perseverance, will help us get closer to the answer to this eternal question (and perennial pop song earworm).

Due to launch on July 30, 2020, the one-tonne vehicle will take more than six months to travel to the Martian surface. It’ll be equipped with 23 cameras, two microphones and a host of complex drilling and recording equipment designed to ascertain whether life has ever survived on the inhospitable planet, and if a human expedition might be able to follow it.

Living up to its name, the Perseverance is the fifth rover built to explore the red planet since the Sojourner in 1997. Next came the twin ‘robot geologists’ Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, followed by the more advanced Curiosity in 2012. Built at a cost of $US2.5 billion ($A3.6 billion), the SUV-sized, nuclear-powered Curiosity is still roving around Mars, and will be joined by the Perseverance in February 2021.

A space car with instruments

The Perseverance rover carries seven instruments to conduct its science and exploration technology investigations. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

None of these vehicles are quick movers – the Perseverance clocks a top speed of just 1.4 kilometres per hour. But what it lacks in speed, it makes up in gadgetry and many of its features might not be out of place on your latest Mercedes-Benz. The Terrain Relative Navigation technology, for example, allows the rover to avoid hazardous space debris during its descent through the chaotic Mars atmosphere. Think of it like the Mercedes-Benz Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC system, which automatically senses other vehicles and adjusts your speed accordingly - only 118 million kilometres away.

Two space cars

A side-by-side comparison of NASA’s Curiosity and Mars 2020 rovers. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

When building the Perseverance, NASA focused on making its six wheels virtually indestructible. The wheels are thinner than the Curiosity, but with a larger diameter of 52.5 centimetres, featuring curved titanium spokes for extra shock absorption. The ‘tyres’ are made of Shape Memory Alloy, which works like metal memory foam. It’s the sort of technology that you could easily imagine being used in future generations of Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

Another notable feature of the Perseverance is the inclusion of a tiny helicopter, the Ingenuity, which will hitch a ride to Mars in the belly of the mothership. Like an intergalactic drone, the Ingenuity will complete short test missions to see if choppers are capable of flying on another planet.

All this tech has come a long way from the Moon Buggies of the early 1970s. The four-wheeled, two-seater, battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicles (LRV) were built by Boeing to explore the moon on the last three Apollo missions: 15, 16 and 17. The golf-cart-like units travelled to the moon folded up inside the Lunar Module and were deployed using ropes, pulleys and cloth tapes.

Yet these LRVs were instrumental in the development of motorised wheelchairs that are used today. Such space-age designs have also inspired out-there designers of concept cars such as the Mercedes-Benz VISION AVTR, which would hardly look out of place in space.

A concept car

The Mercedes-Benz VISION AVTR wouldn’t look out of place in space. Image: Daimler.

But what is really next for cars in space? Europe is following the Perseverance with its own rover, the Rosalind Franklin. The launch has been postponed until 2022, when it’s hoped it will be able to collect crucial data that will help get humans to the red planet.

One day, life on Mars might be more than just a pop song. 

By Michael Harry