The Future of Mars Exploration
By Geoff Briggs
Rotorcraft on Mars
Presently, surface mobility is painfully slow and it will
remain so for the foreseeable future even as rovers grow larger and acquire
nuclear power. Aerial mobility offers many advantages for astrobiology
field work. For example, future Mars rovers are expected to travel at
speeds of 1 kilometer per week. A rotorcraft could travel at 2 kilometers
per minute and it could reach otherwise inaccessible sites. The rotorcraft
would need to have the ability to land at, and take-off at unprepared
sites on the martian surface, return to its mother lander for refuelling
before its next sortie.
NASA Ames Research Center is currently putting a lot of effort into the autonomous control of rotorcraft for all sorts of terrestrial applications and we expect to inherit this technology to support our martian missions.
We plan to develop a smart (largely autonomous) rotorcraft field assistant (SRFA -- "surfer") that will include field testing at the 20 km wide, 20 million year old Haughton impact crater in the Canadian Arctic. The field test will continue ongoing (and highly productive) astrobiology research at Haughton and will demonstrate a systems level capability to carry out such research on Mars. The rotorcraft will include imaging instrumentation for aerial reconnaissance of multiple sites including ones that are otherwise inaccessible. It will also be equipped with a panoramic camera for post-landing surface characterization and a mechanism on the landing legs to automatically acquire a soil sample.
Autonomous Mars Drill
Initially we plan to test the drill in a Mars analog environment -- permafrost regions in the Arctic. When we have a reliable system that can return uncontaminated samples we will be ready to plan a mission to Mars to look for "biomarkers" that may be preserved in the ground ice that we believe is common on Mars. Such subsurface access is a new capability and would constitute a combined research effort of NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Johnson Space Center, Baker Hughes Inc., and the University of California, Berkeley.
Field testing with the JSC-BH drill will be carried out near a Canadian base in Eureka on Ellesmere Island in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Core samples will be acquired for study of microbial survival in ancient permafrost that may be millions of years old.