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NASA and SETI developing space drones to search for life on Mars




One of the perennial questions for humanity throughout time has been whether life exists outside of Earth.

For most of history, we had no means of answering that question. Living in the 21st century, we are fortunate to have the technology to explore and answer investigate some of our most burning questions about space and extraterrestrial life.

The SETI Institute tasks itself with exploring, understanding and explaining the origin and nature of life in the universe. In a recent trial, a SETI team used LIDAR technology equipped to a NASA-backed, Astrorobotic drone and mapped the Lofthellir Lava Tube Ice Cave in Iceland. LIDAR functions by sending out light waves and tracking the reflections to map remote areas.

The lava tube in Iceland was chosen because of the uniquely challenging environment it poses for drones as well as its similarity to caves that drones may one day explore on the Moon or Mars. The Astrobotic drone was able to map the 370-meter long Lofthellir Lava Tube in just minutes.

A visualisation of the map survey conducted by NASA’s LIDAR equipped Astrorobotic drone

Caves below ground on the Moon and Mars are intriguing to planetary scientists because they are sheltered from radiation, temperature fluctuations and meteorite strikes on the surface. It is suspected that there may be zones on the Moon or Mars where ‘cold-trapping’ occurs and water or ice may have formed.

In order to determine whether there is any possibility of life on a particular planet, initial surveys try to detect for the presence of water. Where there is water, there may also be bacteria or other primitive lifeforms.

Andrew Horchler, Director of Future Missions and Technology at Astrobotic was quoted in The Sun: “Small free-flying spacecraft might be the ideal robotic platform for the exploration of lava tubes on Earth, the Moon, and Mars for the simple reason that they would not need to come in direct contact with any of the rough and potentially unstable surfaces found inside caves and lava tubes.”

The Astrorobotic drones are designed to be nimble and would ideally enter caves, rapidly map zones before exiting and transmitting data back to Earth.

How can drones fly in environments with different gravity from Earth?

Drones that operate in Earth’s atmosphere would have to be substantially modified in order to fly on the Moon or Mars. The Moon has next to no atmosphere and the air on Mars is extremely thin. Future Astrorobotic drones that would operate in space would most likely be equipped with thrusters.

“More development work will be needed to create a system that’s ready for the Moon or Mars, but the study of this icy lava tube is an important first step for us,” said Horchler.

If you liked this story, you might also enjoy a piece we brought you last year regarding an Australian startup that used LIDAR to outline the layout of caves and mines.

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