Skip to main content

Rovers could explore lava tubes on Mars or the moon using breadcrumbs

When looking for safe places for astronauts to stay when they venture away from Earth to new moons and planets, one strong contender is that they should stay underground. Being underground means more protection from harmful space radiation and less exposure to weather events, and nature already creates environments that could be ideal bases in the form of lava tubes. Created when molten lava flows under the surface, lava tubes are thought to exist on both Mars and the moon, providing potential shelter for human explorers.

Now, new research from engineers at the University of Arizona proposes a method for using robots to scout out lava tubes for use as habitats ahead of the arrival of human astronauts. “Lava tubes and caves would make perfect habitats for astronauts because you don’t have to build a structure; you are shielded from harmful cosmic radiation, so all you need to do is make it pretty and cozy,” said lead author of the research, Wolfgang Fink, in a statement.

In this artist's impression of the breadcrumb scenario, autonomous rovers can be seen exploring a lava tube after being deployed by a mother rover that remains at the entrance to maintain contact with an orbiter or a blimp.
In this artist’s impression of the breadcrumb scenario, autonomous rovers can be seen exploring a lava tube after being deployed by a mother rover that remains at the entrance to maintain contact with an orbiter or a blimp. John Fowler/Wikimedia Commons, Mark Tarbell and Wolfgang Fink/University of Arizona

The group proposes using a flock of robots like rovers, landers, or submersibles which are linked by a communication network. To safely explore, the robots would use a method inspired by the fairytale Hansel and Gretel, which involves leaving a trail of small sensors like breadcrumbs.

“If you remember the book, you know how Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs to make sure they’d find their way back,” said Fink. “In our scenario, the ‘breadcrumbs’ are miniaturized sensors that piggyback on the rovers, which deploy the sensors as they traverse a cave or other subsurface environment.”

These sensors monitor the environment in which they are placed, and when a robot senses that it is losing communication with the network it drops a communication node. Instead of trying to predict exactly when and where these nodes will be needed, this system lets robots deploy the nodes autonomously as required.

This system means the rovers can explore various types of environments without the engineers having to predict what conditions they will come across beforehand. By forming a mesh network, a group of robots can keep in contact with each other and share information efficiently.

Having established the concept in principle, the group is now working on building a mechanism to allow rovers to deploy communication nodes. This could allow the exploration of environments where there are still many unknowns, like lava tubes.

“The most amazing discoveries in science come about when advances in technology provide both first-time access to a thing or place and the means of communicating what is thereby discovered to creative minds that are seeking understanding,” said University of Arizona professor Victor Baker.

The research is published in the journal Advances in Space Research.

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Curiosity rover battles up a 23-degree slope in its exploration of Mars
Curiosity Rover

The Curiosity rover is slowly making its way up Mount Sharp, a 3-mile-tall mountain on Mars. Mountains are useful to study as their steep slopes can reveal layers of material laid down over time, like a geological time capsule. But just like heaving up a mountain is a challenge for humans, it can be tricky for rovers too. Curiosity recently took on a particularly steep and slippery slope, marking its most challenging climb to date.

How difficult terrain is for a rover to pass depends on a number of factors, including how steep it is, how slippery the sand is, and what obstacles such as boulders or sharp rocks are present. This ascent, which the rover tackled through May and June, had all of the above including a 23-degree incline. “If you’ve ever tried running up a sand dune on a beach – and that’s essentially what we were doing – you know it’s hard, but there were boulders in there as well,” said Amy Hale, a Curiosity rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a statement.

Read more
A solar eruption was detected on Earth, the moon, and even Mars
A coronal mass ejection as seen by SOHO on 28 October 2021. This event is an example of a rare ‘ground level enhancement’. During these events, particles from the Sun are energetic enough to pass through the magnetic bubble that surrounds Earth and protects us from less energetic solar outbursts. This was only the 73rd ground level enhancement since records began in the 1940s, and none have been recorded since.

When you think of the dangers of the sun, your mind most likely turns to the global threat of climate change. But the sun is active and difficult to predict, and it doesn't just pump out a steady stream of heat and radiation -- sometimes it gives off huge ejections that can have serious effects on Earth. Scientists recently reported on one such solar event that was detectable not only on Earth, but also on the moon and Mars.

The solar event, called a coronal mass ejection, occurred on October 28, 2021. A significant amount of plasma erupted from the sun's corona, spreading out as it traveled through the solar system to the extent that it reached both Earth and Mars even when they were on opposite sides of the sun, 150 million miles apart. The event was imaged by various spacecraft including NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA)'s SOHO solar mission. To see an animation of the coronal mass ejection, you can head over the ESA's website.

Read more
NASA’s Mars rover marvels at ‘big chunky weirdo’
The Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie on Sept. 10, 2021 — sol 198 of the mission – in Jezero Crater after coring into a rock called ‘Rochette.’ Rock core samples from the floor of the crater will be brought back to Earth and analyzed to characterize the planet’s geology and past climate.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has been busy exploring Mars since landing there in spectacular fashion in February 2021.

The car-sized vehicle is equipped with a bunch of science tools and cameras to help it in its quest to find evidence of ancient microbial life on the distant planet. It’s also gathering together samples of Martian rock and soil for return to Earth in the ambitious Mars Sample Return mission. Additionally, the current mission offers an opportunity to test robotic technology that could be further developed for the first crewed mission to Mars.

Read more