Nasa is developing a new generation of nano aircraft it is planning to use during the exploration of Mars. And the tiny craft will be made from a specialised form of a surprising material – plain old cardboard.
Nasa engineers have developed tiny “nanocardboard” aircraft which are light powered and weigh less than a common fly. The plan is to launch the craft from rovers on the surface on the red planet. Equipped with miniscule sensors, the carboard aircraft will fly over the surface of the planet, sending back the data gathered. It is hoped the insights that will result will help us understand a lot more about Earth’s closest planetary neighbour.
In just under three months, Nasa will launch a mission to Mars carrying the robotic Perseverance rover. The Perseverance’s mission is to discover any signs of ancient life that may have existed on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago. It will also collect rock and soil samples that could be returned to Earth, giving clues to the future potential for robot-manned mining operations.
Source: The Times
Perseverance will drill into Mars’s rocks and soil, carrying out geological analysis on the red planet, before eventual repatriation of samples for further analysis in Earth’s labs. The information gathered will be analysed with great interest for mining potential.
What metals and minerals are present will also give more understanding about the future potential for human colonies on the planet. Are there enough of the materials we will need to survive there?
A small helicopter will work together with Perseverance, complimenting the rover’s position on the surface of the planet with a bird’s-eye view. This will help Nasa scientists survey greater expanses of the Mars surface and plot new routes for the rover. However, engineers from Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science think that the nano cardboard aircraft they are developing could be a cheaper and more effective alternative to the helicopter.
Igor Bargatin, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the university has been leading the research into the nano-aircraft. He believes their simplicity is a major plus over the helicopter.
“The Mars helicopter is very exciting, but it’s still a single, complicated machine. If anything goes wrong, your experiment is over, since there’s no way of fixing it. We’re proposing an approach that doesn’t put all of your eggs in one basket.”
Instead of carrying the weight of a single small helicopter, 4 lb., Professor Bargatin is proposing to Nasa that the space agency instead pack over a million of the tiny craft into the spaceship that will carry Perseverance to Mars.
Dr Bargatin’s team have been working on the nanotechnology since 2017. The craft consist of hollow aluminium oxide plates a few nanometres thick and weighing less an a thousandth of a gram. Shaped like strips of cardboard, the aircraft rise into the air if a strong light is shone on them. This light is likely to be provided by lasers on the rover.
The light heats up on side of the flat panel, with the difference in temperature seeing air start to circulate in the hollow structure. The air is then expelled from the corrugated sides, pushing the craft into the air. A laser can then be used to control their direction, as the light heating different parts of the plane can control the direction of the air flowing out.
The thinner atmosphere and weaker gravity on Mars also work in favour of the technology and means the nano-aircraft will be able to carry loads of sensors up to ten times more than their own weight.
The Pennsylvania team have received a grant from Nasa to further develop the technology and are now working on the addition of chemical sensors able to detect traces of water and methane. If these are found it would be a major clue that some form of life may have existed in the past.
Professor Bargatin explained:
“In addition to carrying sensors, our flyers could simply land and have grains of dust or sand passively stick to them, then transport them back to the rover so it doesn’t need to travel as far.”
Though the spaceship carrying the Perseverance will launch from Earth in 3 months, it will be February next year before it arrives on Mars. The plan is then to send a second spaceship to arrive in 2026. It will collect the samples gathered by the rover before launching them into the Martian orbit in a small rocket that will be collected by a third spacecraft waiting there. That spacecraft will then bring the samples back to Earth for more detailed analysis.
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