Small, instrumented, expendable robotic aircraft and projectiles have been proposed for use in scouting for targeted new sites by providing closeup images with ~10-cm resolution, covering large distances ~1 to 10 km quickly and allowing reconnaissance to enable sample return. Denoted microflyers or surface-launched explorers (SLEs), the proposed robotic aircraft and projectiles were conceived especially for use in the exploration of Mars and possibly other distant planets. SLEs could also be adapted to such terrestrial uses as military reconnaissance, exploration of hostile terrain (e.g., volcanoes, steep cliffs, or glaciers), surveying hazardous-waste sites, and searching for victims of earthquakes.

Small Robotic Aircraft would transmit images of terrain and possibly sensory data to an exploratory robotic vehicle (lander).

This class of SLEs enables biomorphic missions — hybrid missions which utilize surface assets and aerial assets synergistically to achieve new scientific endeavors along with deploying biomorphic explorers. Biomorphic explorers and related concepts have been described in several previous articles in NASA Tech Briefs, the most relevant being “Biomorphic Explorers” (NPO-20142), Vol. 22, No. 9, (September 1998), page 71; “Earthwormlike Exploratory Robots” (NPO-20266), Vol. 22, No. 6, (June 1998), page 11b; “Insectile and Vermiform Exploratory Robots” (NPO-20381), Vol. 23, No. 11, (November 1999), page 61; “Biomorphic Gliders” (NPO-20677), Vol. 25, No. 4 (April, 2001); and “Seed- Wing Flyers for Exploration” (NPO- 20676), Vol. 26, No. 1, (January, 2002), page 47.

SLEs could include guided projectiles, gliders, electrically powered airplanes and helicopters, and possibly other robotic flyers; specific types, designs, and combinations of SLEs would be tailored to specific applications. In a typical application, the SLEs would be launched from a lander/base station/mobile explorer(see figure) or from a spacecraft, aircraft, or other vehicle that delivered the lander to the exploration site. The means of launching could be as diverse as the SLEs themselves: they could include rockets, balloons, pneumatic devices, or spring mechanisms, for example.

An SLE could carry a small video camera, sensors, and a radio transmitter to send images of the terrain to the lander. The images could help in quickly identifying sites of scientific interest to be explored in more detail and allow identifying hazards and slopes and access the area for its potential for sample return. The images could also be helpful in planning the path of other surface/ subsurface explorers across the terrain.

An SLE could be designed to safely land after following a ballistic trajectory in the low gravity of Mars. After landing, the SLE could continue to function as a scientific instrument: For example, it could analyze surface and/or subsurface soil and use its remaining energy to transmit the analytical data to the lander/ mobile explorer. One or more SLEs designed to survive impact would resemble javelins and would be launched in such a way that, like javelins, they would embed themselves in the ground at the far ends of their trajectories; these SLEs would serve as radio beacons to aid navigation by the other SLEs as secondary communication ports in addition to the primary port on the lander. The lander serves as the local relay to send the data back to Earth via the orbit.

This work was done by Sarita Thakoor and Terry Martin of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-20871

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).

Unfortunately the TSP Surface-Launched Explorers for Reconnaisance/Scouting (reference NPO-20871) appears to be missing from our system.

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