A truly innovative new idea could one day allow us to attach small robotic probes to hand gliders and land them in potentially intricate and difficult to reach locations on the surface of Mars.
The project, known as MARSDROP, would send two landers to the Red Planet as hitchhikers aboard a larger craft. The landers who then detach and use a steerable para-wing to glide the small probes, known as microprobes, down to the surface.
The new concept was created by Rebecca Williams, a senior scientists with the Planetary Science Institute , who also collaborated with Matthew Eby from the Aerospace Corporation and a team of engineers led by Robert Staehle at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
A prototype of the MARSDROP has already been tested. Using terrain-relative video navigation, scientists could steer microprobes to within tens of meters of a desired landing location. The small size of the probes and the precise landing ability would allow them to explore areas of Mars that larger land rovers like NASA's Curiosity simply can't reach.
"What is particularly exciting about this new approach is the possibility of landing in new locations like the canyons in Valles Marineris or at modern geologically active sites such as south-polar geysers or locations with inferred seasonal release of surface water flows," Williams says.
The microprobes could carry a wide variety of instruments such as camera, weather sensors, seismometers and microscopes that can study mineral and inorganic substances and could be used to gather critical data that is needed before humans explore the planet. These probes could help give scientists much needed information about Martian surface geology, monitor surface changes, and search for organics or astrobiologically relevant minerals.
"MARSDROP can help lay the groundwork for future human exploration of Mars by characterizing biohazards like Martian dust and assessing the availability of key resources such as water from which oxygen and rocket propellant can be made," Williams says.
Another selling point for MARSDROP is its cost. The concept would only add an estimated 5 percent to the base cost of current missions to the Red Planet.
"MARSDROP is a cost-effective way to double or triple the number of Mars landers for each mission opportunity," PSI representatives wrote in a mission description.
If this new glider technology is successful in the exploration of Mars, it could also one day be used on planets with atmospheres much thicker than Mars, such as Venus and Saturn's moon Titan.