JPL takes mini rover out for test drive

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena tinkering in their workshops have come up with what could be the next space vehicle. Now they've taken it on a test drive. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde reports on the little rover known as "Axel."

Kitty Felde: It looks like a bright blue oxygen tank on bicycle wheels. Except instead of tires, there are paddles attached to the metal rims. Axel has an onboard computer – and cameras that can capture an image in color and in stereo to give it some depth.

It has an odometer of sorts to keep track of mileage. And there's a tow rope that connects it to the main lunar or Mars rover. Axel is described as a minimalist answer to traversing high risk terrains.

Issa Nesnas: The best way to think about it is like a yo-yo.

Felde: Issa Nesnas is Group Supervisor for the Robotic Software Group at JPL.

Nesnas: So if you hold a yo-yo and you drop it from your hand, it unreels, and then because of its dynamics, it reels back up. So Axel is exactly like that yo-yo, but there's a motor on that yo-yo.

Felde: Three motors, to be exact. They allow the Axel to climb over large rocks and down steep craters. It's designed to be the daredevil partner to the kinds of rovers currently working on Mars.

Nesnas: When you hit a crater that's extremely high risk, you don't want to send your large rover into that crater and risk losing the mission. What you want to do is you send one of these mobile Axels over the cliff, get your sample, and then return, and then the big rover analyzes the sample.

Felde: Axel is just a prototype, built for less than $30,000 in parts. Even the concept is borrowed. Issa Nesnas says it's left over from an earlier project cancelled by NASA.

Nesnas: So that prototype sat in the lab and every day I walked by the lab, I looked at this prototype and said "Oh" – it was just sitting there collecting dust.

Felde: But then the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity amazed NASA with their exploration of Mars. Scientists were particularly interested in Martian craters, but didn't want to risk the rovers.

Issa Nesnas and his team hotrodded the earlier prototype and created Axel. He says a rover could take along two or three Axels to do the dangerous work on a future mission to the Moon or Mars. Nesnas thinks Axel could even be useful here on planet Earth.

Nesnas: Because these things can go down into caves and they can go over things that don't have a good surface to go down on, they could be used in search and rescue missions on earth where they could drop one of these in an area where you have a mining accident.

And then they can take pictures, you can talk to the people who are trapped through the computer, through the robot, and then maybe save some lives that way.

Felde: The Axel prototype was funded by NASA's lunar program. Issa Nesnas and his team put Axel through its paces in JPL's "Mars yard," to demonstrate to project managers what it can do – and perhaps attract funding to build another Axel to tackle the craters of another world.