Lunar Rover Facts & Mars Rover Trivia

By Phill Powell

America has been building rover vehicles to help us explore other planets for five decades. In fact, NASA (as well as countries like China and Russia) has spent billions of dollars developing unmanned vehicles to explore the vast reaches of space.

A rover selfie: Curiosity sent back this picture of itself from the surface of Mars. (Image: NASA)

Who Roved First?
Most Americans believe we were the first to successfully operate a lunar rover (because American Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon) but, as it turns out, that honor belongs to Russia.

By the 1960s, Russia and the U.S. were in a “Space Race,” each country competing fiercely to successfully land and return a human crew from Moon. Russia’s unmanned Lunokhod 1 rover vehicle landed on the moon on November 17, 1970.

The Lunokhod 1 spent 10 months in operation, traveling 10 km during its term of service. It was equipped with a solar-powered radio isotope heater, which kept the vehicle running despite the icy lunar atmosphere.

This museum model (actual size) gives us our best look at Lunokhod 1, the first rover.

America Goes to the Moon
When the U.S. finally did bring a lunar rover to the moon in 1971, it spent $38 million on its development (an enormous sum in 1970s dollars). It was a major feat of robotics and engineering. America’s first lunar rover’s official name was Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), but it was nicknamed the “moon buggy” after the newly popular “dune buggies.”

Here are some other cool LRV facts:

  • Built to Last: Aerospace manufacturer Boeing were tapped to create the famous body-less chassis, while automotive giant General Motors (GM) developed the motors, wheels and suspension system.
  • Four Rovers, One Job: Four LRVs were built in all. One each was dedicated to the missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17. A fourth was manufactured for use as replacement parts.
  • Light Cargo: The LRV needed to be light since it had to be hauled all the way to the Moon, stowing away in the bottom part of the lunar command module. America’s first lunar rover weighed just 450 lb. (204 kg). By comparison, a 1970 VW Beetle weighed 1,918 lb. (In other words, the LRV weighed about 23 percent as much as a VW.)
  • 1 Vehicle, 4 Motors: The LRV was engineered interestingly, with a separate 1/4hp electric motor attached to each of its four wheels. And even though it could not achieve fast speeds, and only required a handbrake to stop, America’s rovers were equipped with seatbelts.
  • Battery Power: In addition to being light, the LRV also needed to last under intense circumstances. It was equipped with two 36V silver/zinc batteries, which gave it enough power to operate while withstanding the moon’s brutal surface temperature of -150F.
  • Routing the Return: Even though it was equipped with two batteries, in case of power failure, astronauts using the LRV always began their excursions by driving to the furthest point away first. (That way, each stop thereafter brought the astronauts closer to the command module…in case they were left stranded by the LRV and had to return by foot.)
  • It’s in the Game: Sony added an LRV to Gran Turismo 6. You can access the Lunar Exploration special events after completing all the National A License Tests. For these special missions, you must get the LRV from Point A to Point B (using the GPS, there are no race “tracks” on the moon) in 1/6th of Earth’s gravity. When you complete all three missions with a bronze or higher, you unlock the Moon Mission Accomplished! trophy.

PlayStation gamers can pilot an LRV in Gran Turismo 6.

The Mission to Mars
Decades passed and by the time NASA was ready to send an unmanned rover to Mars, technology had leapt forward dramatically. When the first Mars rover was sent into space in 1997, it was able to be outfitted with much more sophisticated equipment than the lunar rovers. The mission: to study the physical terrain and determine if the red planet might have ever had organic life on it.

The other great difference involved the Mars rover’s use – not as a passenger vehicle, like the LRV. Instead, the unmanned Mars rovers (there were four in all) were self-contained science labs on wheels, equipped with the following tools and diagnostic devices:

  • Cameras: for capturing revealing images of the local terrain.
  • Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer: for identifying rocks and soils and profiling the temperatures of Mars’ atmosphere.
  • Mössbauer Spectrometer: for analyzing the mineral nature of rocks and soils.
  • Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer: for studying the different elements in Martian rocks and soils.

About the size of a small SUV, the Curiosity rover has different attachments to help it examine Mars.

  • Magnets: for collecting magnetic dust particles, for study by the Mössbauer Spectrometer and Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer.
  • Microscopic Imager: for high-res close-ups of rocks and soils.
  • Rock Abrasion Tool: for excavating fresh mineral materials to study.

And here are some fun facts and rare trivia about the Mars rovers:

  • Four Wheelers: There have been four Mars rovers: Sojourner (landed Jul. 1997); Opportunity (Jan. 2004); Spirit (Jan. 2004); and Curiosity (Aug. 2012).
  • Service Record: The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are still active. Sojourner ended its mission after traveling a cumulative distance of approximately 100 meters, after exploring Mars’ surface for about 3 months. It was last heard from in September 1997. Spirit became trapped in sand and unable to move any further, after covering a distance of 7.8 kilometers. NASA received its last communication in March 2010.
  • Ton of Fun: The Curiosity rover is roughly the size of a small SUV: 9 feet 10 inches long by 9 feet 1 inch wide by 7 feet high. It weighs 2,000 pounds.
  • Overcoming Obstacles: The Curiosity rover was engineered to be able to climb over obstacles in its path – up to 25 inches high.
  • Onboard Generator: The Curiosity rover features a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. It uses its onboard sample of plutonium 238 as fuel, manufacturing power from the plutonium’s radioactive decay. Lithium-ion batteries are also used.
  • Kid-Approved: The Sojourner rover got its name through an essay contest. The winner was a 12-year-old named V. Ambroise, who selected the name in honor of abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
  • Armed for Action: The Curiosity rover is outfitted with a laser that can vaporize rocks.
  • More Cameras: The Curiosity rover has 17 total cameras onboard. In contrast, the Sojourner rover had 3.

The Curiosity Rover is a lasting part of Pop culture. It’s even been honored with its own LEGO!

There’s Room in Space for You
Thanks to the Tech Revolution, there’s more space-related activity than ever before, with commercial space exploration now driving much of the science. There’s never been a better time to scope out a future career in space exploration.

Start this summer with the learning adventure of your life, at Digital Media Academy space camps. Study rocket science and engineering and other cool topics. You’ll work on challenges and activities that put the amazing physics of space exploration at your command.