NASA Is Developing Flying Drones To Explore Distant Worlds

A schematic of the Asteroid Prospector Flyer designed for studying an asteroid and gathering samples. NASA/Swamp Works

We have drones that fight in wars, drones to combat rhino poaching, and now a team of engineers are developing drones that could be used to explore the surface of Mars, the Moon, or even an asteroid. In development at NASA’s experimental Swamp Works laboratory, the drones would use cold-gas jets to propel themselves as they scout the surfaces for valuable resources or potential sites for a permanent base.  

“This is a prospecting robot,” said Rob Mueller, senior technologist at Swamp Works. “The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are. They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that's far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb.”

The logic is that ice and water are most likely to persist in the shadowy parts of celestial bodies, such as craters, which the drones could explore. Called “Extreme Access Flyers,” the researchers hope to use them to fly into hard-to-reach areas, dig out and collect up to seven grams (0.25 ounces) of soil, and then fly back to a base where it could recharge and analyze the samples. They’re even planning on designing the drone to run off fuel made from resources found on the distant worlds – such as oxygen or water vapor – meaning that the robot could potentially make hundreds of exploration flights.

Due to the thin air on Mars, and none on the Moon or asteroids, the researchers had to ditch the possibility of using rotors, which is why they settled on the cold-gas jets. The robot would also have to operate autonomously, deciding by itself where to explore and what to sample, because with no GPS to help it navigate and a delay in communications to Earth, controlling it remotely in real-time would not be possible.

The team has produced a prototype drone about 1.5 meters (five feet) across that uses ducted fans, and they have run a few preliminary tests with it on the Shuttle Landing Facility’s runway. In addition to this, they’ve also made another drone that was created with asteroid exploration in mind. Using a gimbal device to simulate zero gravity, the robot was able to show how it would maneuver in such conditions, using “nitrogen high pressure cold gas thrusters,” while the team watched how it behaved in a simulated virtual world.

But these developments won’t only be useful on other planets. The technology that the team are developing, to be able to fly a drone to an inaccessible region and collect samples, could have uses here on Earth. For example, Mueller envisages a situation where the robot could be used to measure the effect of nuclear radiation when risking a human's life to gather samples might be too great.

 

 

Above: The Asteroid Prospector Flyer showing how it would right itself if in a tumble. Credit: NASAKennedy/YouTube

Middle image: A prototype built to test Extreme Access Flyer systems in different environments. Credit: NASA/SwampWorks

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