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Thursday, January 03, 2013

"Hedgehogs" Designed to Explore Phobos

Illustration of how the mother spacecraft Phobos Surveyor and its 'hedgehogs' would work. (Click image to enlarge).
Exploring micro-gravity climates like Mars, which has just 38 percent of the Earth's force, or its moon, Phobos, which has 1000 times less gravity than that, can be a challenge for rovers that rely on wheels or skittering legs for traction. That's why Stanford researchers plan to survey the Martian moon with an fleet of bounding, spiked spheres, known as "hedgehogs".
Stanford researchers, in collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have designed a robotic platform that could take space exploration to new heights. The exploration system consists of the Phobos Surveyor, an orbiting mothercraft about the size of a coffee table, and a series of surface rovers hedgehogs. 
Artist depiction of Mars moon Phobos
The mission proposed for the platform involves a mother spacecraft deploying one or several spiked, roughly spherical rovers to the Martian moon Phobos. Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials, reports Melissa Pandika at Stanford News.
The hedgehogs themselves may look menacing but are uniquely suited for Phobos' minimal gravitation effects. Instead of relying on wheels that can easily lose traction or become jammed with the moon's powdery soil, these rovers will hop, skip, and tumble their way across the surface—or more accurately, through the air just above it. Each rover incorporates a trio of internal spinning discs—each oriented along a different axis—to generate momentum and propel it along the moon's rough and rocky surface, notes Andrew Tarantola at GIZMODO.
NASA MRO image of Phobos
The researchers initiated the spacecraft-rover project as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program. They will present a paper describing their platform's proposed mission at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Aerospace Conference in March 2013. The proposal will be studied further as a possible future exploration path by NASA later in this decade or the next.

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