Could a roly-poly, wind-powered rover soon zip across Mars?

Researchers look at wind-powered, “tumbling tumbleweed” rover for Mars

tumbling tumbleweed rover
Could a spherical, wind-driven rover be prowling the Mars surface in the future?   Such a spacecraft is being looked at courtesy of a computer model project at North Carolina State University that lets engineers design all manner of space vehicle designs. 

The so-called tumbleweed rover is getting a lot of attention as NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Langley Research Center have also looked at the design, which would feature a spherical wind-driven rover designed to explore the geology of the Martian surface.  According to researchers, rovers that could roll over the surface of Mars like a tumbleweed, quickly covering vast distances- have been discussed for more than 10 years, but so far there has been no consensus on exactly what that vehicle should look like. 

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The computer model developed at NC State could change that by determining how tumbleweed rover designs will function, based on their various design characteristics. For example, the model can show how a rover's diameter, elasticity and overall mass will affect its ability to navigate the Martian surface successfully.   

According to NC State researchers, its new program will create dynamic models that show how an individual rover could traverse flat terrain, a channel and a crater. The simulations show that the rover's motion is dependent on the terrain type and initial and atmospheric conditions, the university said. 

"The results confirm that the wind force both pushes and hinders the rover's motion while sliding, rolling, and bouncing. The rover periodically transitions between these modes of movement when contact is initiated against sloped portions of terrain. Combinations of rolling and bouncing may be a more effective means of transport for a rover traveling through a channel when compared to rolling alone, " NC State researchers said in a report published in the June issue of  Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.   

The idea is to let engineers to test the attributes of different vehicle designs then pick the best design characteristics before spending the time and money necessary to create prototypes for testing in real-world conditions. 

"You can't just build hundreds of different rover designs to see what works - it's too expensive," says Alexandre Hartl, a Ph.D. student at NC State who co-authored the report. "This model allows us to determine which designs may be most viable. Then we can move forward to build and test the most promising candidates." 

Compared with conventional wheeled rovers in use today, a tumbleweed can cover vast distances faster and reach previously inaccessible areas of scientific interest, such as canyons and valleys. Since a tumbleweed is significantly less expensive than traditional rovers, multiple tumbleweeds can be deployed across the Martian or Lunar surface for scientific surveys, Hartl states. 

And the need for such rovers could grow as a few Mars missions are in the works.  For example, NASA Mars Science Laboratory should launch in 2011. The Mars Science Laboratory is actually a rover that will drive around the red planet looking for that elusive data that will tell us whether Mars ever was, or is still is capable of supporting life. The rover will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface, NASA said. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life and could do some prep work for a future landing.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) in November said they are aiming to cooperate on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars.  NASA and ESA agreed to consider the establishment of a joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic, and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. The program would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s. 

The envisioned program includes the provision that by 2016, ESA will build what it calls an Entry, Descent, and semi-soft Landing System (EDLS) technology demonstrator and a science/relay orbiter. In 2018, the ESA would also deliver its ExoMars rover equipped with drilling capability. NASA's contribution in 2016 includes a trace gas mapping and imaging scientific payload for the orbiter and the launch and, in 2018 a rover, the EDLS, and rockets for the launch. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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