5 Ways To Explore A Planet That Surpass Martian Helicopters | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | May, 2021


Telescopes are our initial tools for revealing and studying foreign worlds.

Hubble images of Mars, particularly around the regions with clouds and ices, can showcase the blue color of this portion of the world, which speaks to the size of ice particles in Mars’ atmosphere. Many features can be seen from afar, but the best views to be had are always from orbiters, landers, rovers, or other on-surface explorers. (NASA / ESA / HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM / STSCI / AURA / J. BELL, ASU / M. WOLFF, SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE)

Orbiters, landers, and rovers come next, returning high-quality surface data.

Greeley Haven was where the Opportunity Rover hunkered down for the winter in 2012. The composite panorama, shown here, is the result of more than 800 images stitched together. All told, Opportunity was the longest-lived autonomous rover on another planet, so far. (NASA / JPL-CALTECH / CORNELL / ARIZONA STATE UNIV.)

But recent innovations, like Martian helicopter flights, showcase greater possibilities.

These five novel technologies could revolutionize planetary exploration.

Two of the Solar System’s most famous moons, Enceladus (L) of Saturn and Europa (R) of Jupiter, both contain icy surfaces with cracks on them and subsurface, liquid water oceans beneath them. The possibility of life arising near hydrothermal vents on these worlds is tantalizing. (NASA / JPL-CALTECH)

1.) Undersea ocean explorers. Many worlds, like Saturn’s Enceladus, possess ice-covered liquid oceans.

The IceMole1 probe, shown here with its interiors exposed, is used for melting ice and digging continuous tunnels, both uphill and downhill. After being established in ice fields here on Earth, it could be used to dig through ice on other planets. (ICEMOLE / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

By melting through surface ice, extraterrestrial oceans become accessible.

Autonomous underwater vehicles, like this one from Bluefin Robotics Corporation that was used by the US Navy, have been in use for around 50 years, although their applications were largely military at the outset. Today, they are being reimagined for exploring extraterrestrial waters. (BLUEFIN ROBOTICS CORPORATION/US NAVY)

Concurrently, autonomous underwater vehicles are similarly under development.

This image of the clouds on Venus was taken in ultraviolet wavelengths from NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter. Venus is opaque in ultraviolet and optical wavelengths, but the right frequencies, even from above its thick clouds, can image the surface. (NASA)

2.) A fleet of blimps. Venus, with hellish surface conditions, spells death for landers.

The surface of Venus, from the Soviet Venera landers. Even as of today, the Venera program mark the only spacecraft to ever successfully land and transmit data from the surface of Venus. The longest-lived such lander only transmitted data for approximately ~2 hours; the temperatures at the surface are so hot they’re above the melting point of lead. (VENERA LANDERS / USSR)

Filled with Earth-like air, however, blimps would stably hover at ~60 km altitude.

NASA’s hypothetical HAVOC mission: High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept. HAVOC could look for life in the cloudtops of our nearest neighboring planet, and could also conduct multiwavelength imaging of the surface as well as potentially sending down probes. (NASA LANGLEY RESEARCH CENTER)

NASA’s HAVOC mission could thereby explore Venus, long-term, from above.

A rocket launch experiences sonic intensity and vibrations that are 100 times greater in intensity and 20 decibels greater in loudness than the loudest seats of all at a rock concert. To simulate a rocket launch, both acoustic and vibrational tests are required, while the energy for thrust comes from the combustion of rocket fuel. (NASA / ARIANESPACE)

3.) Oxygen-powered flight. Here on Earth, oxygen supports combustion.

The Cassini mission launched a probe towards the surface of Titan: the Huygens probe. Upon arrival, Huygens took pictures of Titan’s surface as it descended beneath the clouds. On Titan’s surface, it discovered methane lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, but the atmosphere was primarily methane, after all. (ESA, NASA, JPL, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA; PANORAMA BY RENE PASCAL)

On Saturn’s Titan, however, only oxygen deprivation prevents its methane atmosphere from combusting.

These images show Titan in false color, beneath its extremely dense, methane-rich atmosphere. Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a denser, thicker atmosphere than Earth’s, and it’s primarily composed of methane, but lacks oxygen to support its combustion. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA/UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO (L); NASA / CASSINI IMAGING TEAM (R))

Oxygen, 21% of Earth’s atmosphere, would serve as “rocket fuel” on Titan.

Triton’s south polar terrain photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft. About 50 dark plumes mark what are thought to be cryovolcanoes, with those trails being caused by the phenomenon colloquially called ‘black smokers.’ (NASA / VOYAGER 2)

4.) Explore inside cryovolcanoes. Many worlds, like Triton, Europa, and potentially Pluto, contain cryovolcanoes.

Icy-moon Cryovolcano Explorer (ICE) consists of three modules: Descent Module (DM), Surface Module (SM), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). DM descends into a vent by using a combination of roving, climbing, rappelling, and hopping, while SM stays on the surface to generates power and communicate with Earth. Once DM reaches the subsurface ocean, it launches the AUVs to explore the exotic environment that potentially harbors life. (JPL/CALTECH)

A three-stage robotic system, including autonomous underwater vehicles, could reveal their interiors.

Compressed air is released through the bottoms of this prototype robotic lunar lander, designed to work in airless environments. Although this spacecraft can hover, it isn’t designed to be a hovercraft; rather, it’s designed to land and move across airless bodies just as easily as thrusters navigate aircraft on Earth. (NASA/MARSHALL SPACE FLIGHT CENTER/ROBOTIC LUNAR LANDER)

5.) Airless thrusters. Wings, propellers, and parachutes all won’t work without atmospheres.

This photograph shows Lunar Landing Research Vehicle #2 (LLRV-2) being moved from Armstrong Flight Research Center for display at the Air Force Test Flight Museum at Edwards Air Force Base. It is almost identical to the vehicle that almost killed Neil Armstrong in a training test in 1968. (NASA)

But compressed air thrusters — refillable via surface/subsurface volatiles — can transport massive spacecraft.

This time lapse animated photograph shows asteroid 3200 Phaethon, tracked from Riga, Latvia, in 2017. This is the parent body of the Geminid meteor shower: an asteroid just 5.8 km in diameter, approximately the size of the asteroid that catastrophically struck Earth some 65 million years ago. (INGVARS TOMSONS / C.C.A.-S.A.-4.0)

On the Moon, Mercury, and asteroids, this maneuverability could enable space mining operations.

Asteroids, found largely between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, are a rich locale for a significant number of heavy elements that are rare and valuable on Earth. Mining those asteroids for such materials could be an extremely profitable endeavor, and airless landing and travel is an essential technology for that. (ESO)

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