Feeds

Leaping hedgehog probes planned for Martian moon Phobos

Spiky systems use flywheels for low-gravity scouting

Seven Steps to Software Security

Researchers at Stanford University and NASA are designing spiky spherical probes to bounce across the Martian moon Phobos and prepare the way for possible astronaut colonization.

The plan calls for an orbital control satellite, a coffee table–sized unit dubbed Phobos Surveyor, which would scan the moon's surface using gamma ray or neutron detectors to get an idea of the surface composition. It would then fire the "hedgehogs" down onto the Phobian surface, where their prongs would sample the soil.

Given the tiny amount of gravity on the moon's surface, wheels would be useless to get around, so the probes are controlled by tri-directional flywheels. These could force the probe to either roll, hop, or bound longer distances across the surface, depending on the rotation speed of individual flywheels.

"You can get into very hard rocky terrain, or very soft, almost like powder, terrain," said doctoral candidate Ross Allen. "Whatever's touching the ground needs to get traction on hard stuff without getting stuck on soft stuff."

Over a two or three year mission, the Phobos Surveyor could gather a full sample spectrum of the moon's surface and relay it back to Earth. Scientists could jump the probes to new survey spots chosen by the Surveyor's scans and sample specific areas of the heavily cratered moon.

Phobos hedgehog moon probe

Hedgehogs in spaaaace!

"It's the next level of autonomy in space," said the probe's designer, Marco Pavone, an assistant professor in Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

While the technique would be suitable for other low-gravity environments like asteroids and comets, Phobos is the suggested first target. This is partially to work out what the moon actually is, and also to map it out for a possible manned base.

Phobos is rather unusual as Solar System moons go – it orbits closer to the surface of its host planet than any other moon and is so dark as to be difficult to spot at times. It's suspected the moon is a captured rubble-pile asteroid, with a third of its volume made up of hollow spaces, but Pavone suggested the moon has a key advantage as a base for human exploration of Mars.

With no gravity well to speak of, Phobos would be safer and cheaper to land humans on, and the closeness to the surface is an advantage for controlling exploration vehicles remotely. There may also be considerable quantities of water on the moon that could provide resources for a base, but this needs to be checked.

"It's a piece of technology that's needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered," Pavone said. "Before sampling we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface."

So far, two generations of prototypes have been built and tested in simulated low-gravity environments to check the flywheel transport system. A third-generation system is due to be put through its paces next summer, including testing the probe's mobility in actual zero-gravity using swooping aircraft, although presumably without the spikes.

The final system could be ready in ten years, but if the team gets moving they might hitch a ride with Curiosity v2.0 at the end of the decade. A full paper on the project will be presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Aerospace Conference in March. ®

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Beancounters tell NASA it's too poor to fly planned mega-rocket
Space Launch System would need another $400m and a lot of time
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
Vote now for LOHAN's stirring mission patch motto
Does the shed actually know no bounds, or what?
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
All those new '5G standards'? Here's the science they rely on
Radio professor tells us how wireless will get faster in the real world
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.