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Soviet, U.S. Scientists Tested Mars Rover in Kamchatka Despite Coup

September 12, 1991

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) _ While Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev resisted a coup, U.S. and Soviet engineers met in the Soviet Far East to test a robot vehicle designed to explore Mars, a space exploration group said Thursday.

″It was a remarkable time to be there,″ said Louis Friedman, executive director of the non-profit Planetary Society, which advocates space research missions and has 100,000 members worldwide.

The battery-powered, 170-pound Soviet robot is a prototype ″Mars rover″ that resembles a small dune buggy with six cone-shaped aluminum wheels.

The 4 1/2 -foot-long vehicle was tested on the slopes of Tolbachik volcano on the Kamchatka peninsula during three weeks surrounding the failed coup, Friedman said.

Operated by remote control, it crawled at about 1 mph on the volcanic terrain, crossing gullies and climbing hills of thick cinder. Its three axles can move independently, allowing it to crawl like an inchworm, moving its front two wheels forward, then pulling up its middle and rear wheels.

A more sophisticated, partly self-guided Soviet Mars rover - equipped with TV cameras, scientific instruments and a device to collect rock and soil samples - will be shipped to California for tests in the Mojave Desert next May or June, Friedman said.

Friedman said the Soviets have been planning to send an unmanned space craft to circle Mars in 1994, followed by another in 1996.

The second would send two payloads to the Martian surface: the solar- powered Mars rover vehicle and a French-built Mars balloon, designed to rise during the heat of day and settling to a new location each night to make measurements.

Soviet news media reported recently the nation’s space program was crumbling along with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of last month’s failed coup.

But Friedman said the Soviets working on the Mars flights told him their missions were fully funded and proceeding as planned.

Nevertheless, whether the missions really do happen remains uncertain, said Roger Bourke, manager of exploration studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch Mars Observer in September 1992 to orbit the planet. JPL scientists are testing their own self-guided Mars rover - a $1 million machine nicknamed Robby - but Friedman said NASA has no plans to land a rover on Mars until at least 2006.

The Planetary Society is working with the Soviets to build an international team of experts they believe is needed to generate political support for Mars exploration. U.S., Soviet and French engineers tested a 30-foot-tall prototype Mars balloon in the Mojave Desert last year.

NASA’s Bourke joined Friedman on the Soviet trip as an unofficial observer. Also traveling with Friedman were former JPL associate director Bud Schurmeier and private aerospace consultant Thomas Heinsheimer.

They learned of the coup against Gorbachev as their Aeroflot flight from San Francisco made a brief stop in Anchorage, Alaska. They decided to proceed despite concern over the volatile situation.

A couple days after they met the Soviet engineers in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka’s main city, they learned that Yeltsin had successfully stood up to the coup plotters.