August 28, 2012

Robots Could Be Going Spelunking On Mars

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Two of the coolest things we have on this planet are robots and people who go spelunking, and we are about to take those two cool things, combine them, and send them to Mars.

According to a report by Discovery News, recent discoveries of lava tubes on Mars could spark new developments by NASA to send robots to explore caves on the Red Planet.

The report said that one robotics researcher is looking into how a robot would be capable of getting itself down into a cave on another planet.

William Whittaker, with Carnegie Mellon University, and his company, Astrobotic Technology, won a $500,000 NASA research grant to develop cave exploring robotic technologies.

Discovery News reported that one way a robot could enter a Martian cave is to repel down, while another way could be to have the robot hop or lob itself down a hole.

Another option is to place suspension lines across a skylight opening, and the robot could crawl out to the center and lower itself down.

"These are profound mobility challenges compared to the kinds of robots that have gone to space and the kinds of robots that exist in the research world," Whittaker told Discovery News.

Currently, NASA's Curiosity mission is on Mars roaming around to better understand the planet, and also determine if it holds clues to ancient extra terrestrial life ever existing on it.

The rover is able to dig a little ways down on the Martian surface, and grab some soil samples to analyze it. However, scientists are not sure if it is able to dig far enough down to really make any discovery that leads to evidence of ancient extra terrestrial life.

Having a robot go spelunking would be a way for scientists to get a better idea if the Red Planet ever had the conditions to host life.

"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?" Whittaker told Discovery News.

The farther down you go, the more stable temperatures you find, and the more protected life would be from meteorite impacts.

A mission to Mars to search for extraterrestrial life through cave diving may still be a farfetched idea, but with the success of NASA's latest Curiosity mission, its those farfetched ideas that can become a reality.