A future Mars robot could be leaps and bounds different from anything we’ve put on the Red Planet before. Literally.
A team in the United Kingdom composed of scientists and engineers from Leicester University and, Astrium, an aerospace company, is working on plans for a “hopper” instead of a rover that would blast from point to point on the dusty landscape, soaring over obstacles boulders and shifting sand.
Jonathan Amos, writing for BBC News:
It would work like this: carbon dioxide would be extracted from the Martian air, compressed and liquefied.
Pumped into a chamber and exposed to the intense heat from a radioactive source, the CO2 would then explosively expand through a nozzle.
Such a system could catapult the hopper up to 900 m in a single bound. Considering that Curiosity took nearly a year to travel one mile, a hopper robot could cover significantly more ground during its time on Mars.
While the propulsion system sounds tricky, it’s the landing that could be even more challenging. As Amos points out, most spacecraft that use legs to land on Mars use deformable materials. These absorb the force of the impact—much like the crumple zones on cars—protecting the valuable package from the jarring landing. But also like crumple zones on cars, the honeycomb sections are only usable once. A hopper would need to absorb one bruising landing after another.
So scientists are exploring shock absorbers, but they’re unlike the hydraulic kind you have in your car. Rather, they’re more similar to those used at amusement parks to safely slow rides like the drop tower, employing a copper tubes and magnets. You may remember from physics class that a magnet dropped down a copper tube induces an opposing magnetic field, slowing its fall. Such a system would have few moving parts, be insensitive to Mars’s wild temperature swings, and reliable, keeping the hopper safe and ready for its next great leap across the Martian landscape.