Nuclear-powered ’space hopper’ to leap across Mars

Sunday, November 21, 2010

LONDON - Scientists have designed a Mars hopper that could explore the surface of the red planet by leaping half a mile at a time.

It would be able to travel 400 miles during a six year mission, far more than what Nasa’s intrepid Spirit Rover managed - 15 miles over seven years.

The innovative vehicle would move by sucking in carbon dioxide from Mars’ atmosphere and compress it into fuel, before blasting it out in much the same way as a rocket, reports the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

It would take a week for the vehicle to recharge. During this time it would carry out tests on Mars’ physical and chemical surface and sub-surface, reports the Daily Mail.

Nigel Bannister from the University of Leicester said: “At the heart of the vehicle is a radio isotope heat source (one that relies on nuclear decay).

“This heat source would be used in two ways. In one mode, the heat source would impart thermal energy into the propellant (fuel), which would accelerate it out of the vehicle.

“The fuel is gathered from the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. So, to refuel after every hop, the heat source would be switched into a mode that generates electrical power.

“This electrical power would drive a compressor which would then gather carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and compress it into tanks.”

Bannister said the hopper would allow scientists to explore previously inaccessible areas such as rocky terrain or steep inclines in craters.

This could help to answer questions about whether our celestial neighbour was wetter in the past and even confirm if it supported life.

The team argues that using carbon dioxide and nuclear decay would provide a far more reliable power source than solar power.

Nasa’s two rovers - Spirit and Opportunity - which landed on Mars in 2004, were powered by solar panels.

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