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Interplanetary hopefuls gather in D.C.

Moving at an average rate of about four blocks per hour, the string of robots parading through Washington, D.C., last week would not win any awards for speed. Then again, these machines weren't designed to tour on asphalt. Known as rovers, they were built for tougher terrain, such as the boulder-strewn surfaces of the moon or Mars.

Organizers billed last week's "Rover Expo" as the largest gathering of interplanetary rovers ever. At present, however, the interplanetary part remains more hope than fact. None of the 16 rovers on display at the expo has made a trip into space, although the Russians did show two robots planned for their 1996 mission to Mars.

The Russian Mars rover (pictured above) will carry a package of scientific instruments that can photograph the surface, analyze the soil and atmosphere, and study the weather of Mars. The Russian design team and their U.S. colleagues tested the rover this spring in California's Death Valley. The machine measures 1.2 meters long.

The second robot planned for the Russian mission is a large balloon system the size of the Goodyear blimp, designed by French, U.S., and Russian engineers. By day, the balloon will float through the thin Martian atmosphere carrying an instrument-filled gondola and a "snake" below the gondola. At night, the balloon will cool and sink, with the snake resting on the ground. The snake contains a surface-penetrating radar that can search for underground water-ice.

NASA is also considering a 1996 Mars mission that could carry a rover. At the expo, several robotics labs displayed their contenders for that mission. The rovers range in weight from a few kilograms to a few tons. Also at the expo, engineers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh unveiled their eight-legged robot, Dante, which will venture into an active volcano in Antarctica later this year (SN: 6/6/92, p. 376).
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Title Annotation:Rover Expo in Washington, D.C. features all terrain vehicles built for surfaces of the moon or Mars
Author:Monastersky, Richard
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Sep 12, 1992
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