The Marsdrop program could land microprobes on Mars, delivered by a series of gliders. The plan is designed to land small robotic probes in regions inaccessible to traditional probes.
A pair of landers could head to the Red Planet, along with a larger craft. These could detach from the parent vehicle, extending a parawing, much like a hang glider, to soar through the Martian atmosphere. As they pass over areas of interest, small microprobes would detach and head toward the ruddy surface. Terrain-relative video navigation would allow these mechanical explorers to land within 30 feet or so of a desired target.
Marsdrop could be used to explore areas such as volcanic remains, recently formed impact craters, glaciers and other regions larger spacecraft cannot visit.
"What is particularly exciting about this new approach is the possibility of landing in new locations like the canyons in Valles Marineris or at modern geologically active sites such as south polar geysers or locations with inferred seasonal release of surface water flows. This provides the opportunity to tackle a range of science questions that aren't possible in the near-term with existing landing site restrictions," said Rebecca M.E. Williams, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI).
The microprobes would be equipped with an assortment of tools to help it explore the surface of Mars, including video cameras, microscopes, seismometers and weather equipment. Investigation of a range of terrains on Mars could build knowledge needed to successfully land humans on the Red Planet. Currently, NASA envisions such a mission launching in 2039.
Rovers and landers sent to the Red Planet are subject to significant landing restrictions, resulting in the inability to study regions of great scientific interest. However, Marsdrop microprobes would be far less expensive than traditional vehicles, and could also land with near-pinpoint precision, opening up more of the alien world to robotic exploration.
A prototype of the Marsdrop system has already been tested, and researchers believe the vehicles would add less than 5 percent onto the cost of a mission to Mars. This could triple the scientific return from launches to the Red Planet, mission planners stated.
"Marsdrop can help lay the groundwork for future human exploration of Mars by characterizing biohazards like Martian dust and assessing the availability of key resources, such as water from which oxygen and rocket propellant can be made," Williams said.
If Marsdrop is successful on Mars, the same concept could be applied on missions to other planetary bodies with thick atmospheres, such as Venus, or Saturn's largest moon, Titan.