Rovers could explore lava tubes using breadcrumbs

When looking for safe places for astronauts to venture off Earth to new moons and planets, a strong contender is that they should stay underground. Being underground means more protection from harmful space radiation and less exposure to the elements, and nature is already creating environments that could be ideal bases in the form of lava tubes. Formed when molten lava flows beneath the surface, lava tubes are believed to exist on both Mars and the Moon, and offer potential shelter for human explorers.

Now, new research from University of Arizona engineers suggests a method for robots to scout lava tubes as habitats prior to the arrival of human astronauts. “Lava tubes and caves would be perfect habitats for astronauts because you don’t have to build a structure; You’re protected from harmful cosmic rays, so all you have to do is make yourself nice and comfortable,” the study’s lead author Wolfgang Fink said in a statement.

This artist’s rendering of the breadcrumb scenario features autonomous rovers exploring a lava tube after being deployed by a mother rover, which remains at the entrance to maintain contact with an orbiter or airship. John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons, Mark Tarbell and Wolfgang Fink/University of Arizona

The group proposes using a herd of robots such as rovers, landers or submersibles linked by a communications network. To explore safely, the robots would use a method inspired by the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail of small sensors like breadcrumbs.

“Anyone who remembers the book knows how Hansel and Gretel would drop breadcrumbs to make sure they could find their way back,” said Fink. “In our scenario, the ‘breadcrumbs’ are miniaturized sensors that piggyback on the rovers that deploy the sensors as they traverse a cave or other underground environment.”

These sensors monitor the environment in which they are placed, and when a robot detects that it is losing communication with the network, it will drop a communication node. Instead of trying to predict exactly when and where those nodes will be needed, this system lets robots deploy the nodes autonomously as needed.

This system means the rovers can explore different types of environments without the engineers having to predict in advance what conditions they will encounter. By forming a mesh network, a group of robots can keep in touch with each other and share information efficiently.

With the concept established in principle, the group is now working to develop a mechanism that would allow rovers to deploy communication nodes. This could allow exploration of environments where there are still many unknowns, such as B. Lava tubes.

“The most amazing discoveries in science occur when advances in technology provide both initial access to a thing or place and the ability to communicate with the creative minds discovered in the process, who seek understanding,” said Professor Victor Baker of from the University of Arizona.

The research results were published in the journal Advances in Space Research.

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