Mars's Next Explorers: Jumping, Baseball-Size Robots?

July 24, 2006

A new idea for the exploration of Mars may be less of a scientific leap forward than a hop.

Researchers say a swarm of bouncing, spherical bots the size of baseballs could hop across the red planet to search for life.

"We need better tools for exploring things, and creatively designed robots like this fit the bill," said Penelope Boston.

Boston is director of the Cave and Karst Studies Program at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.

She developed the concept of sending jumping bots to Mars with Steven Dubowsky, director of the Field and Space Robotics Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.

Last year NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts awarded the pair a two-year, U.S. $400,000 grant to research the concept.

The duo hit upon the idea while mulling ways to explore and map Martian caves.

"These hopping, rolling, bouncing devices seem like a natural way to do it," Dubowksy said.

Working Prototype

Sheltered from extreme surface radiation and weather, the underground systems of Mars could hold signs of past life or provide shelter for astronauts from Earth, the scientists say.

But the unpredictability of cave formations make the systems hard for robots to explore, Boston says.

"Even though the existing Mars rovers are doing a wonderful job, they could not even begin to hope to get into the kinds of terrain that we are interested in," she said.

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