Novel Robots Being Tested for Mars Exploration

Bijal P. Trivedi
for National Geographic Today
September 6, 2001

A sun-seeking rover and a probe shaped like a giant beach ball are among the newest robots being tested for their potential to explore the Martian landscape.

A robot called Hyperion weaves through hills and around obstacles, all the while avoiding shadows as it calculates a path that maximizes its exposure to sunlight, which it relies on for power. Named for the Greek word meaning "he who follows the sun," Hyperion was designed and programmed to always point its solar panel directly at the sun.

"What makes Hyperion different is that it is more aware of its surroundings. We have added intelligence to this machine," said engineer Ben Shamah of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

For the past for two and a half weeks, Shamah and his colleagues have been testing Hyperion in one of the bleakest and most remote places on Earth—Devon Island, north of the Arctic Circle.

Devon Island, part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, is uninhabited. Its cold, barren, and rocky terrain is the closest simulation of Martian terrain on Earth. The other advantage of the location is that it has 24 hours of sunlight—perfect for testing this solar-powered robot.

A milestone for Hyperion was completing a 24-hour, 6.1-kilometer (3.8-mile) circuit over hilly, rocky terrain and returning to its starting point with fully charged batteries. One concern had been that the robot would travel too fast or not keeps its panels directed toward the sun, causing it to run out of battery power before completing its mission.

Promising Test Results

Although Hyperion must be further developed before it will be capable of exploring Mars, said Shamah, the current model has demonstrated that "sun-synchronous navigation can provide an unlimited source of energy enabling a rover to explore vast areas."

Under good conditions Hyperion plods along at about 30 centimeters (one foot) per second. However, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have designed an explorer that can hurtle across the Martian landscape at up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour.

The speedy explorer is a huge inflatable ball about six meters (19 feet) in diameter that is propelled entirely by wind power.

Continued on Next Page >>


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