NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS) program works on developing human and robotic systems in the desert of Arizona. The dry, dusty terrain and extreme temperature swings make the desert a good place to test rovers and habitation units that will eventually be used on the surface of other planets. The testing has happened in the same desert location since 1998. Last year, the gear tested included a high-tech space truck for drives on a planetary surface, a robotic rover assistant, astronaut habitats, space suits and deep-space communication systems.
One new technology was the Space Exploration Vehicle - a transforming car that can be configured to fly freely through space, or can sit atop a 12-wheeled chassis to become a burly, capable rover about the size of a pickup truck. Its pressurized cabin can carry two astronauts on 14-day trips, according to NASA. Also tested was NASA's Centaur rover, a gleaming gold vehicle that can carry the agency's dexterous humanoid robot helper, Robonaut. Other tools, such as digging implements, could also be affixed to the Centaur. All of this is for good reason: NASA also has an asteroid sample-return mission in the works. This effort, known as Osiris-Rex, should bring pieces of the asteroid 1999 RQ36 back to Earth in 2023.
Pictured: Astronaut Scott Tingle performing an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) during D-RATS 2011 testing.