29 August 2013

Transforming mirror-bots could help rovers explore the darkest depths of alien worlds

There is no such thing as the dark side of the moon. Though the process of “tidal locking” has kept one face of the moon permanently facing the Earth, the far side of the moon receives just as much light as the near side. The only “dark” places on the moon are the places hidden away from the surface: the interiors of caves and the mouths of deep volcanoes. The most common dark places, though, are craters — particularly those with steep walls placed just so as to make it difficult for light to hit the bottom. The same is true on Mars, of course, and the implications for the red planet are much more interesting. So, in this time of great extra-terrestrial exploration, it makes sense to go exploring.

The problem, of course, is that NASA’s rovers do still need to be able to see, and much of the technology we send is dependent on solar power. A pitch black abyss is the very antithesis of a rover’s territory. How do we get our intrepid robotic rovers down into the scary, science-rich depths of Mars? According to NASA’s aptly named Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) division, the answer is teamwork. The team has proposed sending up transforming, mirror-carrying robots to bounce light around as needed, providing light, heat, and power to virtually anywhere on the surface. The mirrors would set up at the sunny lip of a crater or outside the entrance to a cave.

NASA’s diagram of the robot’s basic purpose.

The transforming aspect of the proposal is a bit thin in terms of details. NIAC says the bot could “Unfold to large areas…reflect solar energy, warm and illuminate targets, power solar panels, track movement and act as a telecommunications relay.” By folding up the mirror the robot could protect a high-quality surface from damage while lowering its own center of gravity for increased stability. Additionally, as the team notes, a folding mirror could change its overall shape to best focus light onto a moving target.

It’s important to be able to explore such places for several reasons. First and foremost: curiosity. No, not Curiosity, which is powered by a radioisotope generator, but curiosity. These ever-shadowed areas are the last sort of place left on the surface of these worlds about which we know absolutely nothing. We can draw conjectures to justify this research;for instance, that if we were to find large amounts of ice intact anywhere on the surface of Mars other than the poles, it would be in these places.

The idea that ice could be sitting in large quantities just beyond the reach of our explorers is tantalizing, especially since NASA has made Martian life its top priority over the next few rover missions. Though it would certainly be frozen, even ice is more likely to support small pockets of life than a completely dried-out wasteland. Ice found outside of the poles is also more likely to have once been liquid, meaning it’s far more likely to contain traces of lifeforms that may once have inhabited those waters.

We already use mirrors to focus light for solar power here on Earth. 
More than this, the mirror robots could allow rovers to venture into darkened caves. Such caves present an amazing insight into the geology of a planet like Mars, a glimpse into layers of the planet’s surface that Curiosity’s tiny drills can only dream about. These strata would be totally undisturbed by interfering forces like blasting radiation and sandstorms.

And speaking of sandstorms, another possible benefit would be exploring the feasibility of caves as shelters during one. Mars has extensive, sometimes global sandstorms that can make a even the largest weather patterns on Earth look puny by comparison. While they’re not quite the sand-blasting death-storms of Dune, they could be quite dangerous over time — especially since they can last over a month! Human and even robotic explorers could benefit from knowing whether a potentially sheltering cave is nearby, and what’s inside it.

Additionally, these so-called transformers could be very helpful as telecommunications relays. Not only could they help a rover stay in contact while moving underground, they could free up extra time for exploring by negating the need for Curiosity to be such a slave to the schedules of the communications satellites which relay information to and from Earth. Several message-hopping robots could create a chain where they bounce not just light, but information around, again freeing up rovers to make excursions that would have been otherwise impossible.

Now read: Good news, space colonists! Researchers have figured out how radiation damages spacecraft hulls


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