In Iceland, testing drones that could be the future of Mars exploration


On February 18, 2021, if Everything Goes To Plan, NASA’s Perseverance Rover Will Land On Mars. While it is striking around, looking for signs of past habitat, Ingenuity — a small, experimental solar-powered helicopter stopping a ride on its underside — demonstrates the possibility of flying into another world for the first time. Will try to do. We will be looking at the future of exploration on the red planet.

Back here on Earth, others are already looking beyond Ingenuity. The next-generation NASA-funded Mars mission concept, the Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network or RAVN, is to be placed in the Gantlet through its paints like no other. The project will pair an autonomous rover with specialized drones and be sent to a 32-square-mile lava field in Iceland as a test run for the future on Mars.

Interplanetary rovers are technological marvels, but they cling to the ground. Drones, in one form or another, are the next evolutionary step, and they will be used for more than just reconnaissance. With the scoop and drill, eventually they “won’t go anywhere, and can bring some back,” says Christopher Hamilton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and researcher at Raven.

Hamilton launching drone in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton / University of Arizona

Impact drones have no ill effects on science right now. During the massive eruption of Hawaii’s Kilaue volcano in 2018, the government authorized the largest peaceful deployment of drones in American history. Led by longtime drone advocate Angie Diefenbach, a geologist at the Cascades Volcanic Observatory of the US Geological Survey, she was filmed close to the lava fountains, tracking the slit progress of molten rock, and even people Helped to move out of their homes in the dead of night.

Today, the US Geological Survey has a dedicated drone program, catching up with universities around the world who are using them to reach inaccessible or dangerous locations for scientific research. “This is the age of the drone,” Deffenbach says. “We’re going to do so many cool things.”

Not so long ago, the most advanced drones were “all in the hands of the military,” says Gordon Owinski, planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the Raven team. Now you can buy very capable people online or at your local computer store. They say that the drone said how we are doing fieldwork on Earth. And I think it is definitely going to do the same for other planets. “

The drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of the Martian landscape, as they do in Iceland.
The drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of the Martian landscape, as they do in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton / University of Arizona

Scientists are very good at getting pilots off drones here, but flying to Mars is difficult. Air density is a fraction of the Earth, so any mechanical aviators would need to push it further to achieve any aviation – hence Ingenuity’s test run. While engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory struggled with this challenge in 2014, the Bararbanga volcano system in Iceland exploded. Between August 2014 and February 2015, it dispersed enough lava to easily melt Manhattan, making it Iceland’s largest eruption in 230 years.

The lava flow, as it baked the ice and water lying beneath, developed a hydrothermal system with hot springs that became home to many internal microbes. By 2021, things had calmed down, but the remains of those bastions of life still exist, creating an environment similar to that of researchers to be able to identify on Mars. To the tune of $ 3.1 million, NASA agreed with Hamilton that it would be a great place to test the next generation of automated Mars explorers, and RAVEN was born.

RAVEN has two components. The first is a rover. Courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, it is comparable to curiosity in capacity and design. It can be remotely operated by humans, (there will be a delay of several minutes between commands and action on Mars) but is also capable of navigating the land on its own.

Christopher Hamilton with RAVEN ROVER.
Christopher Hamilton with RAVEN ROVER. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton / University of Arizona

The real innovation of the project will be in its cargo. The drone is a carbon fiber hexacopter, capable of flying for approximately 35 minutes and up to three miles, carrying approximately 20 pounds of scientific equipment. It will serve as a field assistant to the more technically capable rover.

A camera will be a major device, but only for aerial photographs. “It can take many different photos of the same surface feature, and then send it to the rover, where the haftier processor will make true 3D maps of the terrain—” says Hamilton, a view of the environment around the drone and rover Complete virtual rendering, “Hamilton says. These, in turn, will help it navigate around the area properly and rapidly.

The drone will also use a visible to near-infrared spectrometer, which looks at radiation coming from the ground to identify any interesting minerals or substances. But the drone has another killer app.

NASA is laser-focused to bring the rocks of ancient Mars back to Earth. Will be rigorously excavated and cached 43 pen-size rock samples, which will be brought to Earth by 2031, through a series of upcoming NASA and European Space Agency missions. While this robot Rub Goldberg machine plays out, RAVEN will test in a new way. To grab samples in Iceland.

“My favorite part of the raven is the paw,” says Hamilton. It refers to a scoop, or a series of scoop designs, that will be attached to a drone. Rocks of interest will be picked up and sent back to the rover, where the rover’s chemical-interrogation technique will see if the rock is attractive enough to go to the site from which it came, either to see the original reference or a larger one. To obtain a sample.

Scientists are also looking to use the same concept for their Earthbound drones. “The most exciting bit was to see it attached to the claw, because this is where I want to go next year, for [U.S. Geological Survey] At least, ”says Diefenbuch for applications here. “It caused me great excitement.”

The team’s engineering partner, Honeybee Robotics, is coming up with drill designs to grind and vacuum rock into small cylindrical cores or powders and blow the rover.

Steam blowing from the Holuhrun lava region of Iceland.
Steam blowing from the Holuhrun lava region of Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton / University of Arizona

This year, RAVEN’s hardware is being built and software is being manufactured, while its hardware is being built. The games will begin in summer 2022, when the rover and drone arrive at the Holuhrun Lava Field of the Bararbanga Volcano.

The actual first test of the instrument reads like the instructions for a practical final exam. An operation team unfamiliar with the site, which will include students, will use satellite imagery to determine where it is best to “land” the rover and drone. They will issue orders to both vehicles and within a certain time measured on Mars-days, then characterize the geology of the environment and identify potential habitable or once habitable pockets. In addition to testing RAVEN’s technology, testing will determine whether the new team on site will be able to identify the most astronomical fields to study – as future rover-drone Mars missions would have to do. Hamilton says, “I can’t participate in the science plan for our team, because I have the answer key,” because he already knows the sites and areas. After the trial ends, and the team compares the notes, they will play it back in the summer of 2023.

Hamilton can take a picture of the time where RAVEN, or something like that, is stationed on Mars for real. By that stage, he says, “chances are Rover will be an astronaut.” Imagine that, not science fiction, but real: spacefaring scientists, flying drones on Martian volcanoes, exploring alien biosignatures in the foggy light of distant suns, Earth in the sky (and Iceland’s lava field) a blue dot.

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