Mechanical "snake robots" could boost the scientific output of next-generation Mars rovers and get them out of jams from time to time, researchers say.
Small, serpentine robots could help Mars rovers collect soil samples from crevices beneath rocks and other hard-to-reach places, and they could pull their wheeled siblings to safety if the bigger vehicles get bogged down in soft sand.
The snake would ride along with the rover, accessing its power source via a cable. [See a video of the snake robot for Mars]
"The connection between the robot and the rover also means that the snake robot will be able to assist the vehicle if the latter gets stuck," said Pål Liljebäck, a researcher with the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research in Norway, or SINTEF.
"In such a situation, the robot could lower itself to the ground and coil itself around a rock, enabling the rover to pull itself loose by means of the cable winch, which the rover would normally use to pull the snake robot towards the rover," Liljebäck said in a statement.
Such a backup may have been able to save NASA's Spirit rover, which got stuck in 2009 after exploring the Red Planet for five years. Unable to point its solar panels toward the sun over the Martian winter, Spirit stopped communicating with Earth in 2010 and was declared dead a year later.
SINTEF, with assistance from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is currently conducting a 500,000 Norwegian krone (US $84,700) feasibility study for the "snake robot" technology.
SINTEF researchers envision a Mars rover carrying the snake much of the time, dropping the smaller robot at soil-collection sites or other areas of scientific interest. The rover could then analyze the snake-snagged soil or set it aside for transportation back to Earth.
The snake could fit atop or underneath the rover, as long as the wheeled vehicle were outfitted with some sort of hoisting mechanism to pick it up. But there are other possibilities as well.
"One option is to make the robot into one of the vehicle's arms, with the ability to disconnect and reconnect itself, so that it can be lowered to the ground, where it can crawl about independently," said Aksel Transeth, also of SINTEF.
The European Space Agency expects to receive a more specific proposal in December from the researchers. There's no word yet, however, on when the snake could crawl on Mars. ESA is planning a Red Planet rover to launch in 2018 as part of the ExoMars mission.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace