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From Mojave to Mars : Soviet Rover to Be Tested Here Before Going to Red Planet

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

An ingenious “Mars rover” that Soviet scientists plan to send to Mars in 1996 is ready for testing next spring in California’s Mojave Desert, according to a team of Southern California space experts who got more than they bargained for when they went to the Soviet Union’s super-secret Kamchatka Peninsula recently to observe the rover.

The six-wheeled contraption, which can either roll over rugged terrain or pull itself up over boulders like an inchworm, is the centerpiece of two Soviet unmanned missions to Mars that have been approved and funded, according to Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society.

Friedman and three other members of the society, who have been advising Soviet space officials on various aspects of their Mars program, were waiting to board a Soviet airliner in Anchorage last month when one of them, aerospace engineer Thomas Heinsheimer, decided to call his wife in Los Angeles. She told him of the hot news of the day: A coup had been staged in Moscow.

About a minute later, they boarded the aircraft and headed off toward Siberia.

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“If we had had more than a minute to think about it, we might not have gone,” Friedman said during a seminar Thursday at the society’s headquarters. “Apparently, we were the only ones aboard who knew anything about it,” he said.

However, by the time the team reached the test site in the volcanic highlands of the heavily militarized Kamchatka Peninsula, the coup had failed. Heinsheimer said that news came as no surprise by then because extensive military facilities throughout the region had made a point of leaving military equipment exposed--and undeployed--clearly indicating that they were not supporting the coup.

“It was a very dramatic illustration of a military that had immobilized itself,” he said. “We could tell these guys (the coup plotters) were not going to make it.”

That allowed the researchers to turn their full attention on the Mars rover, a weird-looking contraption that is designed to roam over the rugged landscape of Mars, studying the soil and taking pictures that will be relayed to Earth. This mission, long in the planning, is considered one of the most important precursors to a manned expedition to Mars, which the Soviets had planned for early next century, but which now may be in doubt because of the political turmoil there.

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Friedman said Soviet scientists who are involved in the program are confident that they have the funds and the support to carry off both missions, in 1994 and in 1996, but he conceded that he does not know if the Soviet space program will survive the economic and political crisis in that country.

“I’m willing to bet the Mars missions will come through,” he said. “But I’m not ready to invest my life’s savings in it.”

The Soviets have been designing rovers for planetary expeditions for more than 20 years, and sent two rovers to Mars in 1971, Friedman said, but both missions failed. One spacecraft crashed into Mars, he said, and ground controllers lost contact with the other.

The new rover is much more complex than those earlier versions, and it is designed to operate semiautonomously. It will roll along at the pace of a slow walk, stop when it hits an obstruction, and await further commands from controllers on Earth. That is the chief difference between the Mars rover and a similar concept being developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists, who are not likely to get a rover mission to Mars this century, are designing rovers that would be much more autonomous: able to analyze the terrain and decide which course would be least hazardous. That would reduce the long delays required for controllers to study the data and guide every move.

Neither rover would appeal to the jet set, however.

Friedman estimated that it could take weeks for the Soviet rover to move the length of a football field, and in particularly rugged areas all it might accomplish is a couple of yards a day.

Each of the rover’s six wheels is powered by its own motor, and each operates independently of the others. The rover is steered by moving the wheels on each side in opposite directions, much like a combat tank.

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All three axles also can be moved backward or forward, allowing the rover to pull itself over a ridge by squeezing its front axles together and then pulling the rear axle forward like an inchworm.

The Soviets want to test it in the Mojave because that region is similar to the surface of Mars, and it offers much better weather than the frigid mountain regions of Kamchatka. It could also win a little publicity and international support for the Mars program, Friedman said.

The Mars Mobile

Here is a look at the remotely controlled Mars rover, which Soviet scientists hope to use in 1996, being tested on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia:

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Size: 4 1/2 feet long.

Wheels: Six, each powered by its own internal motor and battery.

Movement: Can climb over obstacles using the six individual wheels; can also crawl like an inchworm, pushing front wheels forward and then pulling rear wheels up, to get over steep ridges.

Local Tests: In the Mojave Desert this spring.

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