Dec 05 2012

Rover hill, rover dale, as we hit the dusty trail

In the wake of the somewhat disappointing news about Mars Curiosity this week, there are reports of another rover in the works. That got me to think’n! We’re getting good at building these things and we might be on the cusp of a generalized rover design that would work in many places all over the solar system. A standardized, scalable and adaptable primary architecture and power train married to one of several reliable EDL packages that could turn this century into an age of discovery on par with the one kicked off by Columbus 500 years ago. Hey, a boy can dream.

Wired– NASA’s Curiosity rover is getting a younger brother. A new robotic probe made mostly out of Curiosity’s spare parts and systems will be launched to Mars in 2020 and begin exploring the planet. …

But there are already concerns within the planetary science community about the cost of such a mission and whether or not NASA could better spend its money elsewhere. Curiosity famously ran over budget and was delayed two years, eventually costing $2.5 billion. Furthermore, there are other planets in the solar system that could be explored. Scientists who study places like Saturn or the icy moons of Jupiter seemed particularly stunned by the news.

Therein lays the rub. The dollars, always the fucking dollars. As long as we have a cohort of Orcs in power who favor war, ignorance and zillionaire tax cuts over science and progress, cost will always be a bottleneck and worse, various science and design staffs will always compete with each other one probe at a time. So file this under food for thought: purely from a production engineering standpoint, we now have good designs for rovers, literally, the nuts and bolts items have been worked out to some degree. The materials needed, how motors work, how wheels turn and bite, how samples are taken and moved about, EDL packages, power supplies and instrument housing template. That development was hugely expensive, surely it makes sense to leverage it as much as possible, to think about a Model T of rovers.

With relatively minor modification, devices like Curiosity would return amazing science from distant moons and other exotic objects. A rover could probably be landed on Titan with a traditional parachute, they might be hardened for radiation and live on the surface of Europa or even Io, an evolved device might be able to skip around the surface of comets like a balloon and ride those frozen mountains all the way the Kuiper Belt. Imagine rovers equipped with super res NVGs, trundling around for years, rovers with their own cable channel, tasting and smelling and imaging bits of Mercury or Charon.

I kicked this idea around with a space engineer buddy, he quickly pointed out it’s not as easy as taking a fourthgen rover design for Mars and putting it on Pluto. The two planet smight sound similar in the sense both are near or at vacuum pressure and both are really, really cold. But metal, plastic, circuitry, etc., don’t behave and work exactly the same at 100 below vs 300 below, radiation comes in different amounts and wavelengths, icy dust stable in one environment can turn as explosive as dynamite or corrosive as boiling acid in another. And what do you do for a rover that flips over?

For these reasons economies of scale like this haven’t been brought to bear on interplanetary mission designs to date. But they are being used for satellites and they’re starting to be incorporated into plans for future interplanertary orbiters. Between Sojourner and the twins that soon followed, and now Curiosity and her sibling proposed, maybe we can see the outline of the basic shapes of components needed on a general rover, and we already know something about landing safely on all kinds of surfaces.

It took billions of dollars to develop and test Mars rover technology. It might never be practical to make and use full-blown mass-produced production rover “T” models anywhere else, but we might be able to start making them the same way, or a few dozen at a time, something like custom luxury sports cars, for a fraction of the initial prototype cost. Combine that withs we could see on the launch side with companie slike SpaceX and we could be sending out fleets of these things within a decade. And it doesn’t stop there.

Once the surface resource of a world or worldlet is known, when we know what we have to work with, rovers can be more than mobile platforms for instruments. They can move stuff around, they can dig deep, they can place and maintain equipment. Given time and design refinement, unmanned rovers might patiently build entire offworld factories and the means to carry resources from where they are to where they’re needed. Fuel and supply depots become viable, cottage sized solar power plants; an entirely new industrial infrastructure could arise.

It’s a dream, but given the technology and success we already have, it’s a realistic way our solar system might be developed and thoroughly explored, from lodes of water ice on Mercury’s poles to the final outpost on the frontier of the outer Oort Cloud. If these kinds of dreams ever becomes reality, maybe as early as sometime next century we and our machine partners could finally look deep into interstellar space and take the first tentative steps toward a larger destiny, where discoveries and benefits and yes, maybe risks, we cannot possibly imagine await.


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  1. 1

    They need to put in a bigger radioisotope generator that lasts longer

  2. 2
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    BTW, putting this in comments .. I have multiple very excited sources confiring that a new company called Golden Spike, well funded, well led and totally legit, will indeed announce a return to the moon tomorrow by the year 2020.

  3. 3

    My question, if they are using left over parts from Curiosity, why will it take eight years to land it on Mars?

    Aerospace in general suffers from lack of economies of scale. The only notable exception is commercial jet airliners where the good old B 737 has now something like 10,000 aircraft produced. The military, of course, screws up chances for EOS by demanding capabilities for missions specific to each branch. Of course, any one of those missions is pretty implausible.

    In space travel, the late lamented(?) Space Shuttle was supposed to realize some economies but once again, the battle for dollars in a Cold War world prevented that. It seems to me that a generic rover design capable from the orbit of Venus to the outer fringes of the asteroid belt should be feasible. That would be the sweet spot for NEO exploration and exploitation.

    Likewise a design for the Jovian and Saturn systems might be feasible. Although Titan probably does pose unique operational challenges.

  4. 4
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    John — budgeting it a big part of it. They could go much sooner if they had the space bucks.

  5. 5

    Wonder how soon the Deep Space Network becomes a limiting factor and we start needing to build new dishes? Probably not as expensive as the missions themselves, but for some reason we’ve still only got the three managing communications to all of these missions..

  6. 6

    Given the massive success of “the twins,” Spirit and Opportunity, I would think their design would be more suitable for scaled up production. You can build a dozen of those for the cost of two Curiosity-like designs. Send them to places of interest all over the planet. Then send a Curiosity if something particularly interesting is found.

  7. 7

    Take a look at the NASA Sample Return Robot Centennial Challenge at http://wp.wpi.edu/challenge/.

    As you probably are well aware, the real challenge is the software for planetary robotics projects.

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