Red Rover

Despite NASA releasing its plans for a Martian mission, the space agency admits that Earth is, in fact, a long ways off from manned missions. Mars is known for having an unbreathable atmosphere,lower gravity, no water, and radiation that could potentially cause brain damage, cancer, and (eventually) even death.

To protect humans from Mars’ atmosphere, scientists are speculating that hunkering down in lava tubes—a network of tunnels created billions of years ago by molten rock—could help humans survive.

Notably, these tubes can be 100 meters deep, which makes it almost impossible to send rovers to investigate this possibility, as the thick walls don’t allow real-time audio communication. And sadly, our current Martian rovers are far from autonomous.

To that end, Carnegie Mellon University, working alongside Astrobotic Technology, is now set on developing autonomous drones that can fly and effectively review and explore the Martian landscape. Moreover, the project got a bit of a bolster ater winning a $125,000 contract from NASA to develop the necessary software.

Safe Haven

“Safe haven is a huge priority, right from the beginning,” says William Whittaker, founder and chief science officer of Astrobotic, in the press release. “And out of that diversity of caves, there are likely to be underground spaces that are incredibly amenable to habitation.”

The technology is programmed to have high-speed autonomy and also have an unprecedented degree of decision-making capabilities.

Of course, its aerial mobility is planned to accommodate for the Martian atmosphere, which is known to be 100 times thinner than Earth’s. Ultimately, this this atmosphere makes rotors ineffective, which is why the team is exploring CO2 powered thrusters instead to help effectively explore the unmapped tunnels.

The drones will also be equipped with a recharging system using solar panels or isotope generators.

Astrobotic is eyeing the rovers as rolling motherships for planetary drones, which can hold them over long treks and launching them at prospective locations where they can easily transmit data back to NASA.

Illustration by Son of Alan

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