Robot Snakes to Explore Mars?

curiosity_sol-177-1The recent discoveries and accomplishments of the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have been very impressive. But for some, these successes have overshadowed the limitations that are part of the rover designs. Yes, despite their complexity and longevity (as evidenced by Opportunity’s ten years of service) the robot rovers really aren’t that fast or agile, and are limited when it comes to what they can access.

Case in point, Curiosity is currently on a year-long trek that is taking it from the Glenelg rocky outcropping to Mount Sharp, which is just over 8 km (5 miles) away. And where crevices, holes and uneven terrain are involved, they’ve been known to have trouble. This was demonstrated with the Spirit Rover, which was lost on May 1st, 2009 after getting stuck in soft soil.

robotsnakesAs a result, the European Space Agency is planning on a sending a different type of rover to Mars in the future. Basically, their plan calls for the use of robot snakes. This plan is the result of collaborative study between the ESA and SINTEF – the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia – that sought to create a rover that would be able to navigate over long distances and get into places that were inaccessible to other rovers.

They concluded that a snake-like robot design would open up all kinds of possibilities, and be able to collect samples from areas that other rovers simply couldn’t get into. In addition to being able to move across challenging surfaces, these snake-bots would also be able to tunnel underground and get at soil and rock samples that are inaccessible to a land rover. Curiosity, which despite its advanced drill, is limited in what it can examine from Mars’ interior.

robotsnakes1The researchers envisage using the rover to navigate over large distances, after which the snake robot can detach itself and crawl into tight, inaccessible areas. A cable will connect the robot to the vehicle and will supply power and tractive power – i.e. it can be winched back to the rover. Communication between the pair will be also be facilitated via signals transmitted down the cable.

According to Pål Liljebäck, one of the researchers developing the snake robot at SINTEF, the challenge presents several opportunities for creative solutions:

We are looking at several alternatives to enable a rover and a robot to work together. Since the rover has a powerful energy source, it can provide the snake robot with power through a cable extending between the rover and the robot. If the robot had to use its own batteries, it would run out of power and we would lose it. One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle’s arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently.

An additional benefit of this rover-snake collaboration is that in the event that the rover gets stuck, the snake can be deployed to dig it out. Alternately, it could act as an anchor by coiling itself about a rock while the rover using the cable as a winch to pull itself free.

robotsnake2Liljebäck and his colleague, Aksel Transeth, indicate that SINTEF’s Department of Applied Cybernetics has been working closely with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Engineering Cybernetics for many years. However, it was only recently that these efforts have managed to bear fruit in the form or their robot snake-rover design, which they hope will trigger a long-term partnership with the ESA.

In addition to researching rover design, Transeth, Liljebäck and other researchers working with the ESA are looking for ways to bring samples from Mars back to Earth. At present, soil and other materials taken from Mars are analyzed on board the rover itself, and the results communicated back to Earth. If these samples could be physically transported home, they could be studied for years to come, and yield much more fascinating information.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the robot snake in action:


The researchers are busy working on a feasibility study assigned to them by the ESA. The ESA and the researchers believe that by combining a rover that can navigate over large distances with a snake robot that can crawl along the ground and can get into inaccessible places, so many more possibilities could be opened up.

News from Space: Curiosity Finds Water!

curiosity_drillsGood news (and bad) from the Red Planet! According to NASA, an examination of the fine-grained soil particles extracted by Curiosity, scientists have concluded that roughly 2 percent of Martian surface soil is made up of water. Though they did not find any traces of organic particles, this latest find confirms that water not only used to exist on the surface of the planet, but can still be found within.

These results bode well for future manned missions to Mars, wherein astronauts could mine the soil for water and study it to advance their understanding of Mars’ history. The findings, which were published today in the journal Science are part of a five-paper segment that began back in August of 2012 and is dedicated to Curiosity’s ongoing mission.

curiosity_drilling2Laurie Leshin, dean of the School Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a NASA press release:

One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.

These tests were conducted using the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a collection of instruments that includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer. The first soil samples were collected back in February when the rover used its drill tool for the first time and created a series of holes that were a little over 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) deep and collected the fine dust that resulted.

SAM_NASAOnce placed into the SAM assembly, the samples were heated to 835 degrees Celsius (1,535 degrees Fahrenheit). The gases that were released – which included significant portions of carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sulfur compounds – were then analyzed. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also noticed that quantities of gaseous carbonite were found, which would suggests the presence of water in the Martian soil.

These positive findings were quite welcome, especially in light of the disheartening news last week that Curiosity has yet to crack the methane mystery. Back in 2003, scientists observed methane plumes coming from the planet, a strong indicator of microbial life, which sent scientific and professional interest in finding life on the red planet soaring.

Since that time, no traces of methane have been found, and it was hoped that Curiosity would finally locate it. However, the lack of methane thus far indicates that the rover has little chance of finding existing microbial life on the planet. But the existence of water in such great quantities in the surface soil brings scientists one step closer to piecing together the planet’s past potential for harboring life.

Curiosity_drillingsPaul Mahaffy, a lead investigator for SAM at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had this to say:

This work not only demonstrates that SAM is working beautifully on Mars, but also shows how SAM fits into Curiosity’s powerful and comprehensive suite of scientific instruments… By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments, we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding surface processes and the action of water on Mars.

Given the renewed interest of late in manned missions to Mars – from nonprofit organizations like Mars One, privatized transportation companies like SpaceX, and the unofficial plans to mount a manned mission to Mars by 2030 by NASA – these findings are reassuring. In addition to providing fuel for hydrogen fuel cells for a return craft, subsurface water will be a boon for settlers and terraformers down the road.

mars-one-brian-versteegLeshin confirmed a cubic foot of soil, as opposed to the tiny sample Curiosity analyzed, could yield nearly 2 pints of condensation when heated. So volunteers who are planning on signing up with Mars One, pack your buckets and stoves and be prepared to do a lot of condensing! And perhaps we can expect “moisture farms” to become the norm on a colonized Mars of the future.