Lunar rover undergoing tests in Qatar desert

New research in the desert of Qatar is helping scientists understand more about future space exploration.

Reports from July show scientists operating an Audi Lunar Quattro in Qatar’s Zekreet Desert.

The rover, which had been previously tested in glacier and mountain areas, navigated the sand dunes, often by driving backwards.

Scientists found the craft struggled with high temperatures but noticed the major circuitry remained in good shape.

The project is part of a competition for the Google X Prize, where the first group able to travel 500 meters on the moon and bring home the proof will win $20 million.

The desert project is great PR for Qatar, but it's also a demonstration of what's new in space travel.

“We are seeing a groundbreaking event, the first private rover on the Moon.” Harry Keller, president and founder of Smart Science Education Inc. in California, recently told the Gulf News Journal. explaining how lunar rover testing fits into the picture. Keller, a Caltech graduate with experience in engineering and computing technology, has published articles on space exploration. 

"No one knows exactly how the future of space exploration will play out, and we should be working on everything we can," Keller said. "Compared to Mars, the Moon is easy and makes a great place to test ideas for further space exploration. It could happen that a Moon base will be a key to the future. Placing capable rovers on the Moon will allow us to locate potential base sites and to test ideas for space in general.”

Keller broke down the differences between Qatar’s desert environment and the actual moon surface.

“Earth sand and soil is quite different from the Moon.” Keller said. “Desert sand in Qatar … consists of fine and medium grains of silicates, mostly quartz (silicon dioxide). On the Moon, the soil is mostly basalt that's been broken down by millennia of meteorite impacts and the solar wind … the very fine dust that covers the Moon does not cover the Qatar desert in the same way. Any such dust would be blown away to be captured by nearby non-desert land and by bodies of water. Sure, the deserts are dusty, just not so much as the Moon.”

Keller said lunar electrostatic dust sticks to objects and surfaces. This dust, he said, can really be a problem for rovers and other mechanical constructions.

“The dust can be a serious problem for mechanical devices, because it can infiltrate into the mechanisms, wear them down and even clog them.” Keller said.

Also, Keller said, the much lower gravity of the moon will help rovers use less energy and experience less challenges navigating slopes.

“The Earth has the highest gravity of the four rocky planets in our solar system.” Keller said. “The gravity on the Moon is one-sixth of that on the Earth. This low gravity makes operating rovers on the Moon easier, not more difficult … the rovers still must have a low center of gravity, because the changes in forces that tip and hold down a rover balance each other. Being lighter on the Moon, a rover is less likely to become stuck in a rut or gully. While the wheels will have less grip on the lunar soil, they also have less weight to move … while very low gravity may not help people's health, it's a boon for machines. Rovers can go farther and faster in the low lunar gravity.”


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