Bouncing over the red planet

Research by MIT scientists could see the Mars being explored by a swarm of baseball-sized probes bouncing over the surface of the planet.

Thousands of the probes, powered by fuel cells, could cover a vast area now beyond the reach of today’s rovers, including exploring remote and rocky terrain that large rovers cannot navigate.

“They would start to hop, bounce and roll and distribute themselves across the surface of the planet, exploring as they go, taking scientific data samples,” said Steven Dubowsky, the MIT professor of mechanical engineering who is leading the research team.

Dubowsky’s team plans to test prototypes on Earth this autumn and estimates that a trip to Mars is about 10 years away. He is now working with Penelope Boston, director of the cave research program at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, to create probes that can handle the rough terrain of Mars.

The tiny probes could investigate the lava tubes left behind by underground lava flows and Mars’ otherwise inaccessible canyons for signs of water.

Each probe would weigh about 100g and would carry its own tiny fuel cell. Artificial muscles inside the probes could make them hop an average of six times per hour, with a maximum rate of 60 hops per hour. The devices would travel about 1.5 metres per hop, but they could also bounce or roll. In 30 days, a swarm of probes could cover 50 square miles, according to Dubowsky.

Each probe would carry different types of sensors, including cameras and environmental sensors. The probes would be made of durable and lightweight plastic that could withstand the rigors of Mars travel and the extreme cold. Their fuel cells would provide enough heat to keep their electronics and sensors operable.

The probes would be able to communicate with nearby probes through a local area network (LAN). Data would be sent to a base station that would transmit information back to Earth.

Other possible applications for the small robots include search and rescue missions in collapsed buildings or other dangerous sites.