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Off-road driving heads to outer space

Have you ever wondered how space vessels handle off-road driving on other planets? It's probably not something that comes to the front of your mind very often, but it is actually an important aspect of off-roading. Although procedures on planets such as Mars are undoubtedly different than those on Earth, there are a number of similarities between how vehicles drive on both planets. 

For scientists to create and prepare rovers and other machines for life on Mars, they had to first test them in similar conditions on Earth. This may seem like a tall order, but it was made easy when researchers found a similar environment to the one in space - in Utah. 

Mimicking Mars
The first thing experts had to do to was find a property that could act as Mars' rough surface during testing. They found the perfect stand-in at Utah's Mars Desert Research Station, located in Hanksville, which is just southeast of the state's center. 

At the facility, scientists, engineers, volunteers and plenty of curious minds get the chance to see what it's like to drive on Mars, Space.com reported. Much the land surrounding the research station is filled with dust and rocks, so driving on the land is reminiscent of dune bashing. In some areas however, it can be more similar to mudding, especially during damp seasons when the ground becomes a sprawling segment of mud in all directions. 

Teams who utilize the facility have preplanned "missions" they can take part in, getting as close to an outer space experience as they're likely to find.

"The idea was a small crew on these kind of preplanned set of missions that would allow astronauts to get there and have a functioning habitat in place," MDRS Director Shannon Rupert told Space.com. "We approached it from the idea that it's there and ready to go, and they [the crew] just have to land." 

While many real-life astronauts and NASA workers get to spend time at the center, it is also open to those who simply have a curiosity for what outer space may be like.

About the Mars Rover
Curiosity, the Mars Rover, is currently exploring the Red Planet, and it is doing so with the help of a number of features that allow the vessel to handle the difficult terrain. With the head rising 6.9 feet above the ground and an arm extending another 7 feet outward, in addition to an array of technological features that can accomplish a number of scientific feats, Curiosity is certain capable of completing tasks on Mars. However, the only way it could successfully reach its locations is with the right off-roading tools. 

According to NASA, the rover has six wheels stemming off its legs, and its tires are able to get through the sand, dirt and rocks present on Mars. The rocker-bogie design enables the machine to keep all of its wheels on the ground at all times, no matter how rocky the terrain is, which is a huge advantage. Its technology has been optimized to have tilt limits, so the rover can smartly avoid any inclines that may cause it to tip over or harm one of its exterior features. 

With four-wheel steering, the ability to swerve and curve, and the potential to go over obstacles or across holes, Curiosity is able to handle many types of terrain it encounters on Mars. Add in cleats installed on the wheels, which provide added grip for going through sand and across rocks, and the end result is a tremendous machine that draws from many standard off-road vehicles.