There are locations that are either too hazardous to land and gather data, or not practical to land. Also, data may need to be gathered from multiple (tens to hundreds) locations (sometimes at once). This is not feasible with a single lander or rover. A single lander does not provide any redundancy in case the lander (or rover) is lost during landing, and due to high costs, is not amenable to landing at multiple locations.

First hardware prototype based on off-the-shelf components.
This innovation is a small blanket-or carpet-like two-dimensional (2D) lander with a low mass/drag ratio that allows the lander to efficiently shed its approach velocity and provide a more robust structure for landing integrity. The nearly two-dimensional sheets are equipped with low-profile (surface mount) sensors, solar cells or other sources of power, batteries, and transmitters (or transceivers). The flat nature and low mass of these landers allow dozens to be stacked for transport and distributed en masse to the surface. The concept leverages recent developments in low-profile microelectronics and MEMS technology, such as the labon-a-chip, integrated RF communications, and laser or LED-based probes (spectrometers). The mass and size of these technologies also reduce the required stiffness and mass of the structure to the point where compliant, lightweight, robust landers are possible. These landers should be capable of passive landings, avoiding the costly, complex use of rockets, radar, and associated structure and control systems.

Such a dropped sensor configuration has not been developed before. Reduction in lander complexity, risk, and recurring costs, and simplicity of system testing and validation, are among the benefits of this technology. A further benefit is that by deploying redundant landers, the mission is not dependent on the success of any particular lander; even a high attrition rate of 50% would still provide invaluable data and images that currently cannot be obtained in any other way. Finally, this technology enables certain types of missions for which distributed landers are required.

Among the many potential dual-use benefits and intermediate earthbound applications of such a system are the possibility of delivering measurement equipment by aircraft or drone to hazardous sites, the deployment of a distributed surveillance network in tactical situations, and continuous remote monitoring of the environment over a wide expanse of ocean, glacier, or forest where it may be difficult to land to deploy sensitive instrumentation.

A picture of the early-stage and small-scale prototype of the lander is shown.

This work was done by Hamid Hemmati of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-49454

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Two-Dimensional Dropped Sensor Suite

(reference NPO49454) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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This article first appeared in the July, 2015 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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