NASA is building a prospecting quadcopter that can fly in Mars’s atmosphere to look for minerals and other natural resources in places that are inaccessible to land rovers.
Due to the extremely thin atmosphere on Mars, the Extreme Access Flyer (EAF) will rely on cold-gas jets that release oxygen or water vapor for thrust instead of rotors like traditional drones.
“The first step in being able to use resources on Mars or an asteroid is to find out where the resources are,” Rob Mueller, a senior technology at the Kennedy Space Center, said in a statement from last week. “They are most likely in hard-to-access areas where there is permanent shadow. Some of the crater walls are angled 30 degrees or more, and that’s far too steep for a traditional rover to navigate and climb.”
Instead of using GPS, like traditional drones, to navigate Mars’s landscape, the EAF will be programmed to recognize landmarks and scout for the most resource-rich areas by itself.
The EAF, which is 5-feet wide, will be equipped with a digger that can procure 7 grams of material at a time, enough to give NASA a representative sample of the geological distribution of minerals in a given area.
The resources found on Mars will likely be partitioned for use on future exploration and colonization missions. The distance to Mars from Earth means that transportation costs are exorbitant, and it would likely be uneconomical to ship anything back to Earth.
The primary goal of a drone exploratory mission would be to find resources that can provide fuel for spacecrafts and sustenance for astronauts—and colonists—who find themselves on the red planet. NASA plans to have the EAF search for lava tunnels that can serve as a makeshift habitat for humans on Mars.
“You could put a whole habitat inside a lava tube to shelter astronauts from radiation, thermal extremes, weather, and micrometeorites,” Mueller said.
The development of an exploratory drone is part of NASA’s larger project to one day make Mars a habitable place for human beings, which has been ongoing for a number of years.
In May, NASA held its sixth robotic mining competition, where teams of college students built and submitted robots that can traverse a simulated Martian terrain and drill the bedrocks for water stored in its underground icecaps.
NASA’s experimentation with drone technology has only started in the last few years as advances in autonomous flight controllers and laser-guidance in a burgeoning drone industry made it possible for the space agency to develop a prototype fit to fly on Mars.
The aspiration to colonize Mars, for years a dusty relic of the Space Race era, has been largely revived by Elon Musk. The SpaceX founder said last year that if things go his way, he would sell $500,000 one-way tickets to Mars by 2025.