Over the years, we’ve sent lots of robotic missions to Mars. The legion of orbiting satellites, stationary labs, and rovers have each given us new insights into the makeup and history of the red planet but have ultimately boldly gone where other probes have gone before. While the size and instrument packages of the probes may have changed over the years, they’ve generally just trod the same ground hoping to find something new. Now a robotics firm has been given the go ahead to research technology that would for the first time, allow NASA to finally peak deep under the Martian surface.
In an earlier post, we told you about a newly discovered “skylight” found on the Martian surface that looks to be a cave in over a network of a dormant volcano’s ancient lava tubes. With the help of a two year, $500,000 grant from NASA, robotics firm Astrobotic Technology is now looking for ways to allow robotic missions to safely go spelunking on Mars and bring back some data we’ve never seen before using those same structures. Astrobotic’s CEO William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University told Discovery News why he thinks this could be such a huge leap forward for Mars exploration.
There’s been these dreams of ‘Oh, could you drill 2 meters and get a sample? Could you drill 5 meters and get a sample? Could you drill 7 meters and get a sample? Could you ever, ever, ever, ever drill 10 meters and get a sample?’ Well, my gosh, how about you just get out a rope and go down a hole and you can get samples that are from 50 meters down and everything along the way?
Astrobotic has a pretty tough mission on their hands, as an extraterrestrial, robotic spelunking mission has never been attempted before. The options to be explored are simply dropping a durable rover down the hole, repelling a robot down the side, or even crisscrossing the opening of the sinkhole with secured lines and lowering the probe down through the middle. All of these options have to take into account the makeup of the surface of Mars and the robot’s ability to relay information back to Earth, a feat which would be all but impossible for an untethered robot exploring tunnels deep in the Martian underground.
Mini Cooper sized rovers are cool and all, but who doesn’t want to see creepy cave pics from Mars? Let’s hope that Astrobotic Technology can figure this problem out so that we can see what the inside of Mars looks like, or barring that, see a rover find a new definition of pain and suffering as it is slowly digested over a thousand years in a Sarlacc’s belly.