Friday, March 8, 2013

Leaping hedgehog probes planned for Martian moon Phobos

Researchers at Stanford University and NASA are designing spiky spherical probes to bounce across the Martian moon Phobos and prepare the way for possible astronaut colonization.

The plan calls for an orbital control satellite, a coffee table-sized unit dubbed Phobos Surveyor, which would scan the moon’s surface using gamma ray or neutron detectors to get an idea of the surface composition. It would then fire the “hedgehogs” down onto the Phobian surface, where their prongs would sample the soil.

Given the tiny amount of gravity on the moon’s surface, wheels would be useless to get around, so the probes are controlled by tri-directional flywheels. These could force the probe to either roll, hop, or bound longer distances across the surface, depending on the rotation speed of individual flywheels.

While the technique would be suitable for other low-gravity environments like asteroids and comets, Phobos is the suggested first target. This is partially to work out what the moon actually is, and also to map it out for a possible manned base.

Phobos is rather unusual as Solar System moons go – it orbits closer to the surface of its host planet than any other moon and is so dark as to be difficult to spot at times. It’s suspected the moon is a captured rubble-pile asteroid, with a third of its volume made up of hollow spaces.

The final system could be ready in ten years, but if the team gets moving they might hitch a ride with “Curiosity” v2.0 at the end of the decade. 

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