A Vehicle Like This Will One Day Go to Mars

For now, the prototype rover—part tank, part Batmobile—is destined for Washington, D.C.

The Mars Rover Concept Vehicle was created as a traveling exhibit to inspire future space explorers. (Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)
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Forty-one years ago this week, NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft touched down on the surface of Mars on July 20, 1976. The National Air and Space Museum honors this historical interplanetary achievement with “Mars Day!”—a daylong celebration of the science and future exploration of the Red Planet on Friday, July 21.

The event offers visitors a unique chance to interact with the experts that have made Mars exploration possible. “All of the scientists from the Smithsonian’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies are out on the floor to answer questions,” says Priscilla Strain, a museum program manager and, she jokes, “chief Martian,” responsible for orchestrating the Mars Day festivities.

This year, the Mars Day will also feature a rare treat—a prototype planetary rover that is part tank, part Batmobile, and all business. Called the Mars Concept Vehicle, the new 5,500-pound, 28-foot-long, 11-foot-tall, six-wheeled rover, constructed at the Kennedy Space Center and making a cross-country tour, is more of an aspirational design than the real deal. Its purpose is to inspire the next generation of engineers and space voyagers.  

The rover was engineered by Parker Brothers Concepts of Cape Canavaral, Florida, to navigate craters, boulders and dunes. An aluminum and carbon fiber construction is designed to keep future explorers of the Red Planet safe in the Martian environment and well-equipped for conducting research. A mobile laboratory on the rear of the vehicle can detach and remain stationary while the front vehicle explores.

Cruising terrain on Mars will be enabled by an electric motor powered by solar energy and a 700-volt battery. A peek inside the ultra cool black and blue exterior reveals the navigation, communication and life support systems.

With landing sites selected for the next NASA rover mission scheduled to visit Mars in 2020, and active test flights for spacecrafts like Orion that could shuttle astronauts to other planets, the first human visitors to Mars could very well be among the crowds visiting the Air and Space Museum this summer. 

Though visitors won’t be able to take the vehicle for a test drive during its brief two-day visit, they are welcome to ask for driving tips from Mike Seibert, NASA’s lead flight director and remote rover driver for the Opportunity mission. Hopeful future space explorers can also show off their dexterity behind the wheel of miniature rovers by maneuvering a robot over rough terrain or manning a robotic arm to collect samples of space rocks, all from the safety and gravity of the Air and Space Museum, of course.

Mars Day is also the one time a year that an Earthling can get up close and personal with the Red Planet. “Folks from the Natural History Museum are bringing over actual meteorites from Mars that visitors can see,” says Strain.

Other interactive displays include high resolution images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and examples of recent Martian storms, asteroid impacts, and avalanches that illustrate the dynamic, changing environment of our nearest planetary neighbor, one orbit further away from the sun.

Throughout Mars Day, scientists will be on hand in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall and at each exhibition in the museum to answer questions. Wise visitors will want to brush up on all the Mars trivia they can: at 1:30 pm a “Martian of Ceremonies” will test knowledge during the Red Planet Quiz Show in exchange for prizes.

Scholarship and research on Mars has skyrocketed since Viking 1 made its first contact in 1976. The museum’s Mars Day celebrates these advancements with a nod towards the future—the day when humans might take their first bouncy ride along the craggy surface of the Red Planet in a souped-up rover like the Concept Vehicle. For now, though we are Earth bound, Strain says, “we’re all Martians on Mars Day.”

Mars Day! at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. takes place on Friday, July 21, 2017, from 10-3 p.m. The Mars Rover Concept Vehicle is on display Friday, July 21 through Saturday, July 22, 2017.

About Kyle Frischkorn

Kyle Frischkorn is a graduate student in oceanography at Columbia University, and a 2017 AAAS Mass Media fellow at Smithsonian Magazine. In between being in the lab, on a boat, or in a lab on a boat, he’s written about science for GQ, Lucky Peach, Eater, Scientific American and Atlas Obscura.

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