The recent mission to Mars to send the Perseverance rover cost more than two billion euros. Fitted with wheels specially adapted to the Martian terrain, it is expected to withstand harsh working conditions. Of course, if one of the wheels fails, there won’t be a repair shop around. If the aim is to lower the cost and improve the durability of these missions, it is imperative to start exploring alternatives. The next step in that direction could be the prototype robot developed by the GRASP laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They have named it IceBot because, well, it is essentially made of ice. In the long run, the goal is to develop a self-reconfigurable, self-replicating, and self-repairing device.
The first model has been manufactured by hand, but it is already operational and can move around using wheels and a central ice body. The researchers are studying various additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques, although the most efficient method has proven to be mechanical sculpting by drilling. One of the team’s proposals is that, in the future, two types of robots would be sent on interplanetary exploration missions. Firstly, one robot would be responsible for fetching and collecting manufacturing materials and, secondly, another one in which the ice parts would be installed or repaired.
Of course, the IceBot’s electrical systems and connectors would still be made of metal alloys. The goal, however, would be to reduce them to the bare essentials to minimize irreversible technical problems. The current device weighs 6.3 kilograms and, for now, will be tested in Antarctic environments. Hopefully, in the future, it will allow exploration of planets and asteroids where ice is available in abundance and temperatures are very low.
Robotic balloons, another alternative for exploration in harsh environments
The Soviet Union’s Venera project aimed to explore Venus. There, conditions combining extreme temperatures, sulfuric acid clouds, and high atmospheric pressure posed a significant challenge. Thirteen probes had to be sent to capture images of the planet’s surface. When Venera 13 finally landed successfully, it sent back the first, and so far only, color images. Unfortunately, its lifetime was just over two hours, the time it took to succumb to the hellish conditions. So, for now, sending rovers like Perseverance to Venus for long-duration missions remains an insurmountable challenge. One alternative is to rely on aerial exploration. Thus, NASA has just signed an agreement with a U.S. company to develop a new model of a robotic balloon for Venus exploration.
The advantage of the balloons is that they represent a middle ground between direct exploration on the ground and satellites. The new balloons will be designed to cope with a hostile atmosphere while providing more detailed analysis than orbiting satellites without compromising the device’s integrity. The idea is to develop a high endurance balloon equipped with electronic systems that will allow it to navigate autonomously through the Venusian atmosphere.
If you want to know more about other technologies that will allow us to explore and even colonize other planets, we recommend this article on 3D-printed buildings on Mars or this one on the use of fungi to construct buildings that NASA is already considering.