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Canada wants more wheels in space with new rovers

The Canadian Space Agency's latest prototypes include smaller, more versatile machines that can help the larger rovers on Mars or the moon.

Canada's Mars Exploration Science Rover is a six-wheeled, solar-paneled science lab. International Symposium on Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Space

Not content with a robot arm and a handyman on the International Space Station, ever-aggressive Canada is aiming for a bigger slice of the space pie with some new rover prototypes.

The Canadian Space Agency recently showed off the fleet of vehicles designed to inspire machines that will explore the moon and Mars.

They include mini-rovers that can act as scouts, as well as larger vehicles that could do double-duty as astronaut transporters. NASA is hoping to work with some of the vehicles, but the earliest that they would be aboard a mission to Mars or the moon would be 2020.

The Mars Exploration Science Rover has six wheels, solar panels, and a robotic arm equipped with a microscope and mini-drill. It could help return samples from the Red Planet for study on Earth.

The Lunar Exploration Light Rover, meanwhile, is also designed to carry a robotic arm for experiments, but on the moon. As the fastest rover in the fleet, it has a top speed of 9.3 mph, a science payload of 661 pounds, and a range of about 9 miles.

It can be modified to carry astronauts around, or it can rove around semi-autonomously, using its LIDAR to detect and get around obstacles in its path without supervision.

The smaller rovers, like the Kapvik micro-rover, can help astronauts dig or act as scouts for the larger machines. They can be tethered and lowered down slopes as steep as 65 degrees, and autonomously explore terrain while searching for interesting objects to probe.

"NASA has an experiment that they have been considering...that involves digging up lunar soil and making hydrogen and oxygen out of the soil," Iain Christie, president of Canadian machine-vision firm Neptec, told CBC News. The company designed Artemis, a prototype autonomous lunar rover with treads that did field tests with NASA earlier this year.

Check out more pics of the Canuck rovers in our gallery above.