Monday, November 30, 2009

NASA proposes robotic rocket-plane to explore Mars

NASA is proposing to build a robotic rocket-plane to explore Mars from the air, and has advertised for help building it.

The Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Surveyor (ARES), around the size of a small plane, will be folded into a rocket and launched to the red planet. It would be the first aircraft ever to fly over another world.

After entering the atmosphere in a capsule, the aircraft would deploy parachutes and unfold its wings and tail, before firing its rocket motor and flying around a mile above the surface of Mars for around an hour and a quarter.

The idea is that an atmospheric craft like ARES can explore far more ground than existing rovers, like Spirit and Phoenix, but in much more detail than an orbital spacecraft. It is hoped that it could cover as much as 600 square miles in its short flight.

While the idea was tabled several years ago, with suggestions it could even have launched by 2007, no progress has so far been made.

However, now NASA has issued a “teaming opportunity”, offering private companies and designers the chance to help create the craft.

The team behind the concept hopes that it will be accepted as one of the space agency’s “Discovery” missions, aimed at swiftly and (relatively) inexpensively exploring other worlds in our solar system.

Other recent proposals that been put forward for Discovery include a nuclear-powered robot sailing-boat to plough the seas of Saturn’s moon Titan.

Similarly, a proposal by scientists at the California Institute of Technology has suggested that armies of flying, sailing and driving robots will one day explore other planets.

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