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Mars rovers could explore caves like Hansel and Gretel: study

While cities on Earth are locked in a constant struggle to solve housing shortages, the market on Mars is already heating up.

Engineers at the University of Arizona have developed a system they say could enable autonomous vehicles explore the habitats of astronauts in caves and other underground places. Humans have long considered caves to be home, but researchers say the red planet’s underground features will offer the best options for shelter when humans finally reach Mars.

“Lava tubes and caves would make perfect habitats for astronauts because you don’t need to build a structure,” said Wolfgang Fink, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Arizona. “You’re protected from harmful cosmic radiation, so all you have to do is make it nice and comfortable.”

Fink and his co-authors detailed how the system works in a peer-reviewed study published in a scientific journal. Advances in space exploration on February 11. Their approach involves a communications network that will connect different types of rovers through a “mesh topology network.”

These independent rovers will be docked with a larger “mother” rover and will travel independently across and below the Martian surface, continuously monitoring their environment and maintaining an awareness of where they are in space. They will also communicate with each other via a wireless data connection.

To avoid traveling out of communication range and getting lost, the rovers will place communication nodes along the way, just as Hansel and Gretel leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the classic German fairy tale.

Referring to the legendary siblings, the team named their patented system the Breadcrumb-Style Dynamically Deployed Communication Network paradigm, or DDCN.

“In our scenario, the ‘breadcrumbs’ are tiny sensors that roll onto rovers that deploy the sensors as they pass through a cave or other subterranean environment,” Fink said.

When the rover senses that the signal is fading but is still in range, it leaves the communication node, no matter how far it has traveled since the last node was placed.

“One of the new aspects is what we call opportunistic deployment. the idea that you use the ‘breadcrumbs’ when you need to and not on a pre-planned schedule,” Fink said.

Fink and his co-authors say their new approach could help solve one of NASA’s problems. Grand challenges of space technology providing the technology needed to safely pass by comets, asteroids, moons and planetary bodies. NASA’s Grand Challenges are an open call for innovative solutions that solve critical problems in space, such as the need for mobility systems that allow humans and robots to explore any destination on or below the surface.

The DDCN concept can work in one of two ways. In one mode, the mother rover passively receives data transmitted by the rovers as they explore Martian caves and lava tubes. In another, the mother rover acts as an orchestra, telling the ravers where to go.

Both modes should allow a rover team to navigate underground environments without ever losing contact with their “mother rover” on the surface. Equipped with a light detection and propagation system, also known as lidar, the rovers could even map cave passages in three dimensions.

The paper has attracted some attention in the field of solar system exploration, drawing praise from Dirk Schulze-Makuch, president of the German Astrobiological Society.

“The communication network approach presented in this new paper has the potential to herald a new era of planetary and astrobiological discovery,” Schulze-Makuch said in a press release.

“It finally allows us to explore the caves of Martian lava tubes and the subsurface oceans of icy moons, places where alien life might exist.”

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