Scientists have come up with a pioneering system that could see small probes attached to gliders in order to explore Mars.
The concept could allow small robots to access new locations on Mars, which existing probes have never been able to access. MARSDROP would send two landers to Mars onboard a bigger spacecraft, before they detach and deliver small probes to the surface of the Red Planet, writes Kasandra Brabaw for Discovery.
Small probes able to land accurately
Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) is the scientist responsible for the idea, and she collaborated with Matthew Eby from the Aerospace Corporation as well as a team of engineers led by Robert Staehle at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
A prototype vehicle has already undertaken testing involving terrain-relative video navigation, which would allow the probes to land within tens of meters of their desired touchdown spot. As a result of this capability, as well as the small size of the probes, they are capable of reaching tight spots such as canyons and volcanic regions that larger rovers such as Curiosity cannot reach.
“What is particularly exciting about this new approach is the possibility of landing in new locations like the canyons in Valles Marineris or at modern geologically active sites such as south-polar geysers or locations with inferred seasonal release of surface water flows,” said Williams.
Probes could gather vital information about Mars’ surface
Despite their small size, the microprobes would be capable of carrying a number of instruments such as cameras, weather sensors, seismometers and microscopes, which they would use to gather data about the surface of Mars. It is thought that the probes could provide new information which is vital to collect before humans can one day land on Mars.
“MARSDROP can help lay the groundwork for future human exploration of Mars by characterizing biohazards like Martian dust and assessing the availability of key resources, such as water from which oxygen and rocket propellant can be made,” Williams said.
The financial cost of the microprobes is relatively small, adding “an estimated 5 percent to the base cost of current Mars missions.” This means that “MARSDROP is a cost-effective way to double or triple the number of Mars landers for each mission opportunity,” according to representatives from the PSI.
Should MARSDROP prove to be successful, the concept could also be put to work on other planets such as Venus, or Saturn’s moon Titan, whose atmospheres are thicker than Mars.