Monday, August 4, 2014

Aouda.X and MAGMA Whiterover: Robotic rock climbers seeking clues to Mars' past

Aouda.X Mars spacesuit together with MAGMA Whiterover during sunset. 

The Life experiment of the University of Innsbruck is attached to the rover. Credit: (c) OeWF (Katja Zanella-Kux)

A robot that can scale the faces of steep cliffs might one day help explore Mars and find signs of life.

The latest experiments with this "Cliffbot" showed it could help examine places otherwise difficult or impossible for astronauts to safely reach, although further improvements are needed for it to overcome obstacles, according to findings detailed in the journal Astrobiology.

Gullies and canyons with steep cliffs are seen all over Mars. Ancient channels of water may have cut many of these valleys into the rock of the Red Planet, suggesting water may once have flowed on the surface of what is now a dry and dusty world.

The possibility that water flowed on Mars raises hope that life might once have existed there, or could live there still, perhaps hidden in underground reservoirs.

Liquid water is an essential ingredient for life as we know it, and there is life virtually everywhere there is liquid water on Earth.

To see whether the history of Mars includes life, scientists would like to learn more about the planet's past. On Earth, researchers often do this with digs, the older the material is, the deeper it is typically buried.

Aouda.X Mars spacesuit
However, digging on Mars is difficult, as doing so requires heavy equipment that is not easy to fly to another planet.

Instead of using robotic or human missions to dig on Mars, researchers want to see if they can take advantage of how naturally occurring gullies and canyons already slice into the Red Planet and expose strata, that is, layers of rock.

A robot that can scale the cliffs of these valleys could uncover clues to Martian history.

In a sense, the more it would descend, the further back in time it could travel.

Since 2001, the Association Planète Mars, the French chapter of the Mars Society, has experimented with probes capable of being lowered down faces of steep cliffs using cables.

MAGMA Whiterover
The goal is for astronauts to manually operate a Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) or Cliffbot instead of dangling off rock faces themselves, and use cameras and other scientific instruments aboard the robot to analyze difficult-to-reach locations.

The latest series of tests of the Cliffbot were conducted as part of the Austrian Space Forum's MARS2013 project in February 2013.

The researchers worked near Erfoud in the Moroccan desert, where the Saharan geology and topography is similar to that of Mars.

Cliffbot was steered by operators as they wore the Aouda.X spacesuit, an outfit designed to simulate what an astronaut in a real spacesuit might experience on Mars.

Although the Aouda.X suit was not truly airtight like a real spacesuit, it could simulate many of the major limitations to dexterity and movement that a real suit on Mars would present (for instance, a system that weighs 100 pounds, or 45 kilograms, and takes two hours to put on).

More information: "The Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle: A Tool to Improve Astronaut Exploration Efficiency." Souchier, Alain. Astrobiology. May 2014, 14(5): 406-416. DOI: 10.1089/ast.2013.1070.

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