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Magic Carpets: How Rug-like Landers Could Explore Alien Planets

The search for a terrestrial explorer that wouldn’t break the bank – or one of its wheels – continues with NASA’s new “flat lander” design. The new design is for sensor-laden sheets that could be easily dumped off a space craft over a wide area of a planet and beam information back to surrounding satellites. The simple delivery system is the real key here, eliminating the need for the kind of complicated landing strategies necessary for rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity.

The sheets, which give a whole new meaning to the term “space blanket”, would be about 3’x3′ and about 0.4 inches thick. Once deployed from a spacecraft, the flat landers could drift softly down to the surface of a planet without any sort of complicated and accident-prone landing gear like the sky crane used to drop our Mars rovers off. The sheets would be solar powered and could carry flexible forms of instruments like spectrometers, environmental monitoring devices and even small cameras.

I love astrophysical drama as much as the next guy, but flat lander technology could mean less stressful landings than that of Curiosity in 2012. (JPL)

Another major benefit of this design is how many landers could be transported to an alien planet. Their largely two-dimensional shape means that these landers could be stacked aboard a space craft and them shuffled off one by one onto an alien planet’s surface – basically making it rain in the most technologically advanced way imaginable. The high number of units that a craft could deliver means a nice margin for error that researchers are very comfortable with.

“They don’t all have to survive; we have dozens of them,” said Hamid Hemmati of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who was given the grant to develop this design. “Even if half of them make it, it’s still good. We’ll be happy.”

Here’s where it gets really cool. Right now the flat landers are designed as stationary objects; however, it is thought that special actuators could wrench the sheets into a spherical shape when desired, allowing them to be pushed across a terrestrial surface by strong winds such as those on Mars. Just picture techno-tumbleweeds and you get the basic idea.

Mars would be a great candidate for the flat lander’s debut, but don’t count Jupiter’s moon Europa out. Just last week it was announced that NASA’s 2015 budget has money set aside for the development of a mission to said moon. Could a fat stack of flat landers be on board for said mission?

Here at Nerdist, we know rovers. Check out our celebration of the Mars rover Opportunity’s 10th anniversary and and Curiosity’s mind bending photo of Earth from the Martian surface. If non-traditional designs are up your alley, you’ll love the super ball bot, a carefully tangled mass of wires and cables that could one day clamber over alien landscapes.

HT: Space.com

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