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Time to get rolling on Mars

Artist's impression of inflatable "tumbleweed" craft on the surface of Mars.

An artist's impression of inflatable "tumbleweed" craft on the surface of Mars.

  • Inflatable craft blown by wind
  • Able to explore large areas of Mars
  • Low cost, low mass

One of the difficulties with exploring Mars is moving from place to place. Satellites such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can scan the entire planet, but are limited in how low they can go – usually no less than several hundred kilometres.

Landers such as the (now dead) Phoenix are stuck in one spot, and can study the surface only as far as their robot arms can reach and cameras can see.

Rovers such as Spirit and Opportunity can cover more ground, but very slowly and not too far. In six years, Opportunity has managed to travel only about 12 kilometres from its landing site.

Enter the Tumbleweed! Scientists and engineers are working on a new generation of martian explorers that would be blown from one place to another by the martian winds. They’d be able to cover vast distances and explore many different types of terrain.

Dr Kim Kuhlman, a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), is Principal Investigator of the Tumbleweed project. He and his team from NASA and other academic and private bodies, is designing a fleet of Tumbleweeds to roam around the Red Planet.

The Tumbleweeds would be sent to Mars either folded up or deflated. Once on the surface, they would unfold or inflate and start their work. And because they wouldn’t need any power for mobility, all their resources could go into science experiments. They would be equipped with cameras, spectrometers for analysing the surface chemistry, and maybe even ground-penetrating radars.

These inexpensive explorers could be released en masse, perhaps individually optimised for different types of terrain. And being small and light, they could easily be piggybacked on other missions.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL.