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In Iceland, Testing the Drones That Could Be the Future of Mars Exploration – Atlas Obscura

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On February 18, 2021, if all goes to plan, NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Mars. While it’s poking around, looking for signs of past habitability, Ingenuity—a tiny, experimental solar-powered helicopter hitching a ride on its underside—will try to demonstrate the possibility of flight on another world for the very first time. We may be looking at the future of exploration on the Red Planet.

Back here on Earth, others are already looking beyond Ingenuity. A next-generation NASA-funded Mars mission concept, the Rover-Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network or RAVEN, is about to be put through its paces in a gauntlet like no other. The project will pair an autonomous rover with specialized drones and be sent across a 32-square-mile lava field in Iceland as a test run for a future on Mars.

Interplanetary rovers are technological marvels, but they’re stuck to the ground. Drones, in one form or another, are the next evolutionary step, and they will be used for more than just reconnaissance. With scoops and drills, eventually they will “go somewhere the rover can’t go, and bring something back,” says Christopher Hamilton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona and lead researcher on RAVEN.

Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland.
Hamilton launching a drone in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

There’s no mistaking the impact drones are having on science right now. During the prolific eruption of Hawai‘i’s Kīlauea volcano in 2018, the government authorized the largest peaceful deployment of drones in American history. Spearheaded by longtime drone advocate Angie Diefenbach, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory, they were used to film lava fountains up close, track the slithering progression of molten rock, and even help people escape their homes in the dead of night.

Today, the U.S. Geological Survey has a dedicated drone program, catching up with universities across the world that are using them to reach inaccessible or dangerous places for scientific research. “It’s the age of the drones,” says Diefenbach. “We’re going to do so many cool things.”

Not long ago, the most advanced drones “were all in the hands of the military,” says Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario and RAVEN team member. Now you can buy pretty capable ones online or at your local computer store. Bit by bit, he says, drones “are changing how we do fieldwork on Earth. And I think it’s definitely going to do the same for other planets.”

Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland.
Drones will be able to provide powerful, unprecedented views of Martian landscapes, just as they do in Iceland. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

Scientists are getting very good at piloting drones down here, but flying on Mars is going to be tougher. The air density is a fraction of Earth’s, so any mechanical aviators will need to push a lot more of it to get any elevation—hence Ingenuity’s test run. While engineers grappled with this challenge at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in 2014, the Bárðarbunga volcanic system in Iceland erupted. Between August 2014 and February 2015, it spilled enough lava to easily smother Manhattan, making it Iceland’s largest eruption in 230 years.

The lava flow, as it cooked ice and water trapped below, developed a hydrothermal system with hot springs that became home to many happy microbes. By 2021, things had cooled, but vestiges of those bastions of life still exist, creating an environment similar to what researchers hope to be able to identify on Mars. To the tune of $3.1 million, NASA agreed with Hamilton that it would be a great place to test the next generation of automated Mars explorers, and RAVEN was born.

There are two components to RAVEN. The first is the rover. Courtesy of the Canadian Space Agency, it’s comparable to Curiosity in capability and design. It can be remotely operated by a human, (on Mars there would be several minutes of delay between commands and action) but it’s also able to navigate the land all on its own.

Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover.
Christopher Hamilton with the RAVEN rover. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

The real innovation of the project will be in its cargo. The drone is a carbon fiber hexacopter, capable of flying for around 35 minutes and up to a distance of three miles, carrying about 20 pounds of scientific equipment. It will act as the more technologically capable rover’s field assistant.

A camera will be one key instrument, but for more than just aerial photographs. It can take several different photographs of the same surface feature, and then send them to the rover, where heftier processors will make true 3D maps of terrain—“a full virtual rendering of the environment around the drone and rover,” says Hamilton. These, in turn, will help it navigate precisely and speedily around the area.

The drone will also use a visible to near-infrared spectrometer, which looks at radiation coming off the ground to identify any interesting minerals or substances. But the drone has another killer app.

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NASA is laser-focused on bringing pristine Mars rocks back to Earth. Perseverance will dig up and cache 43 pen-sized rock samples that, through a series of upcoming NASA and European Space Agency missions, will be brought to Earth by 2031. While this robotic Rube Goldberg machine plays out, RAVEN will be testing a new way to grab samples in Iceland.

“My favorite part of RAVEN is the Claw,” says Hamilton. This refers to a scoop, or a series of scoop designs, that will be attached to the drone. Rocks of interest will be picked up and flown back to the rover, where the rover’s chemical-interrogating technology will see if the rock is fascinating enough to go visit the site where it came from, either to see the original context or get a bigger sample.

Scientists are looking to use that same concept for their Earthbound drones too. “The most exciting bit was to see the Claw attached to it, because that’s exactly where I’d like to go in the next year, for the [U.S. Geological Survey] at least,” says Diefenbach, for applications here. “That made me pretty excited.”

The team’s engineering partner, Honeybee Robotics, is coming up with drill designs, too, to pull out small cylindrical cores or grind rock into powder that can be vacuumed up and flown to the rover.

Steam blowing off Iceland's Holuhraun lava field.
Steam blowing off Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field. Courtesy Christopher Hamilton/The University of Arizona

This year, RAVEN’s hardware is being manufactured and software is being coded while its hardware is manufactured. The games will begin in summer 2022, when the rover and drones arrive at Bárðarbunga volcano’s Holuhraun Lava Field.

The actual first test of the equipment reads like the instructions of a practical final exam. An operations team unfamiliar with the site, which will include students, will use satellite imagery to determine where best to “land” the rover and drones. They will issue commands to both vehicles and, within a set amount of time measured in Mars-days, then characterize the environment’s geology and identify potentially habitable or once-habitable pockets of it. In addition to testing RAVEN’s technology, the test will determine if a team new to the site will be able to identify the most astrobiologically areas to study—just as a future rover-drone Mars mission will have to. “I can’t participate in the science planning for our team, because I have the answer key,” Hamilton says, since he already knows the site, and the areas with the best potential for exploration. After the trial ends, and the team compares notes, they’ll run it back in summer 2023.

Hamilton can picture the time where RAVEN, or something like it, is deployed on Mars for real. By that stage, he says, “there is the possibility that the rover would be an astronaut.” Imagine that, not science fiction but real: spacefaring scientists, flying drones over Martian volcanoes, searching for alien biosignatures in the hazy light of the distant sun, the Earth (and Iceland’s lava fields) a bluish dot in the sky.

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NASA is Considering a Radio Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon – Universe Today

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The University of Colorado Boulder and Lunar Resources Inc. have just won NASA funding to study the possibility of building a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. The project, called FarView, would harvest building materials from the Lunar surface itself, and use robotic rovers to construct a massive, intricate network of wires and antennas across 400 square kilometers. When complete, FarView would allow radio astronomers to observe the sky in low-frequency radio wavelengths with unprecedented clarity.

Radio telescopes work best in isolation. On Earth, if radio telescope operators want to ‘hear’ the sky without interference, they need to establish enormous exclusion zones around the telescope where cellphones, wi-fi, and even the spark-plugs from gasoline cars are banned. FarView proposes to put a telescope in the quietest place we can think of, away from Earthlings and our noisy gadgets. With this Lunar observatory, astronomers would be able to listen to the Universe more clearly than ever before, allowing them to go deeper back in time and space, perhaps even to the cosmic dark ages when the first stars were forming.

The Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, requires a large ‘Quiet Zone’ surrounding it to avoid interference. Credit: Geremia, Wikipedia Commons.

It just might work, although the plan is still in the earliest stages. FarView is funded by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which works with entrepreneurs to fund ideas that are innovative and technically sound, but largely untried and still in their infancy. NIAC projects are a glimpse at the possibilities of space exploration a decade or more in the future. It will be a long road yet to create the proposed Moon-based observatory.

Dr. Alex Ignatiev, Chief Technology Officer of Lunar Resources, is confident they can pull it off, and do so without breaking the bank. “We could build FarView at about 10% of the James Webb Telescope cost and operate for more than 50 years,” he said. It is an impressive goal.

Building with Lunar Soil

The key to keeping costs down is to build FarView using materials already available on the Moon, otherwise known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU). ISRU has become a buzzword in recent years with regard to Lunar and Martian exploration, as it is will be necessary to sustain long-duration human activity on the Moon and Mars. In this instance, ISRU will allow FarView to reduce the expensive costs of escaping Earth’s pesky gravity well by building the telescope out of Lunar regolith.

The exact manufacturing process for FarView relies on two techniques. The first is molten regolith electrolysis (melting Lunar soil to separate the metals from the oxygen), and the second is vacuum deposition (laying down thin foil-like films of material). Lunar Resources has experience in both techniques on a small scale; they will need to be ramped up to create the enormous FarView observatory.

During a Future In-Space Operations (FISO) telecon presentation last December, Ignatiev explained that the regolith across the Moon is a mix of metallic oxides, with more iron in the Mares and more aluminum in the Highlands, and elements like silicon and magnesium available throughout. “Our challenge then in terms of doing manufacturing on the moon with raw materials,” he said, “is to break that regolith-oxygen bond…and obtain the raw elements from that regolith” using electric currents.

Artist’s depiction of a rover laying down antennas on the far side of the Moon. Credit: Lunar Resources.

A small robotic processing factory would extract these metals from the soil, and deposit them into a rover. FarView’s Principal Investigator, Ronald Polidan, told FISO that as the rover drives along, it “melts the regolith surface into a glass, then lays the metal antennas on that, with connecting wires and all the other necessary infrastructure.” Using this method, it would take 26 months to fabricate the 100,000 ten-meter-long dipoles required for the telescope. The rover would only be able to work during the Lunar days (about two Earth weeks long) and have to hibernate during the nights.

Challenges and Opportunities

Building a Lunar telescope sounds complicated, but its principles are fairly straightforward once the materials are extracted. Laying strips of metal foil across the surface of the Moon shouldn’t be too hard, and no large-scale load-bearing construction is necessary for it to work. The best part is that, in theory, the metal dipoles are serviceable and repairable, giving FarView a lengthy lifespan.

To begin operations, however, some other infrastructure will probably be required first. The team plans to build solar panels and batteries from regolith as well, providing power sources for the telescope. They hope ISRU techniques like these will be tested and proven in conjunction with the Artemis program in the coming years.

Finally, for FarView to succeed, some consideration will have to be given to communications. When China landed their Chang’e 4 lander on the far side of the Moon in 2019, they first had to put a communications satellite (Queqiao) at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point, to allow the lander to talk to Earth. NASA has no such satellite available yet – and cooperation with China in space has been politically difficult in recent years. A Lunar far side observatory is going to require some innovation: either in engineering, or in diplomacy.

Are Lunar Observatories the Future of Astronomy?

With new mega-constellations like Starlink coming online in the next few decades, Earth-based astronomy is becoming more and more challenging. These low-flying satellite swarms create bright streaks of light which pollute telescope imagery. Lunar observatories might seem like a promising alternative to sidestep this problem. But the fact is that for most types of telescopes, you just can’t beat the cost and convenience of building them on Earth, even if Starlink gets in their way occasionally. As such, it seems likely that Lunar observatories like FarView will only supplement Earth-based observatories, not replace them, at least not anytime soon. Not even with ISRU.

Streaks across Earth-based telescope imagery, caused by an early batch of Starlink satellites in November 2019. Image Credit: NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/CTIO/AURA/DELVE/Clara Martínez-Vázquez and Cliff Johnson.

FarView is exciting not because it solves the Starlink problem (which mostly affects optical telescopes anyways), but rather because FarView offers a unique opportunity for low-frequency radio astronomy, something not viable on Earth due to all of the radio noise we create. With FarView, we could learn things about the cosmic dark ages that just aren’t possible with Earth-based infrastructure. Its scientific value is huge. Just don’t count on it to act as a substitute for mega-constellation regulations, or streak-reducing brightness mitigation techniques. We’re still going to need those to ensure Earth-based astronomy can coexist with mega-constellations, because neither of them are going anywhere any time soon.

New ground-based telescopes like the Vera Rubin Observatory and the Extremely Large Telescope are going to do amazing things in the next decade. If and when FarView joins them, it might just ring in a new golden age of astronomy, with Earth, space, and Moon telescopes alike working together to understand our place in the Universe. It’s a goal worth pursuing, and with a little cooperation and ingenuity, it just might come sooner than we think.

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Video "Perseverance" robot moves to the surface of Mars for the first time – SwordsToday.ie

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The U.S. space agency “NASA” announced on Friday that the probe “Perseverance” had succeeded in traveling a few meters on Mars for the first time since it landed on the surface two weeks ago.

The six-wheeled mobile robot advanced four meters on Thursday afternoon, then turned itself to the left and then retracted about two and a half meters to check if its operating systems were working properly.

“Perseverance” was able to take pictures of its own wheels on the surface of Mars, published by NASA. The rover crossed six and a half meters in 33 minutes.

Search for clues to ancient life

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I used to be when I saw the wheel tracks,” said the engineer in charge of robot mobility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which designed the vehicle. The engineer noted at a press conference that the first phase of the investigation had progressed very well, completing its mission “a very important step”.

The spacecraft can travel up to 200 meters on each Mars (slightly longer than Earth). It travels at five times the speed of any other Curiosity rover still operating on Mars.

Mobile Android “Preference” has landed The surface of Mars on February 18th The last thing on the Gizero crater that scientists believe to have been a deep lake about 3.5 billion years ago.


Thirty rock samples from the planet will be explored in two years, and another vehicle will return to Earth to find evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.

Scientists are now observing two journeys of a mobile robot to the delta formed by an ancient river flowing into the lake, as researchers place great importance on exploring it as it is likely to contain large amounts of debris.

The first laser shot from “Supercam”

Before that, the helicopter will launch a small “ingenuity” under the vehicle, which will become the first motor vehicle to fly in the atmosphere of another planet. NASA teams are looking for the best place to conduct this historic experiment “before the end of spring,” Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Hogg promised Friday.

PrioritySo far, its cameras have captured more than 7,000 images on Earth. On February 24, NASA released a remarkable panoramic image that collected several shots taken at the landing site of the mobile robot, showing the top of the Jessero crater.

One of the photos of the vehicle shows a light brown rock. In its analysis, a scientific instrument called “Supercom” was used for the first time. NASA expects to present the results next week.

The U.S. space agency also named the landing site “Perseverance” after Octavia e-Butler, a science fiction writer born in Pasadena, California, where JPL is located.


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NASA's Perseverance Mars rover digging in with BC-made part – Chilliwack Progress – Chilliwack Progress

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Greater Victoria’s Kennametal Inc. facility is used to making custom products for industry spanning every corner of the globe.

However, it’s the piece the plant made for a jobsite that’s currently over 200 million kilometres away that’s bringing the company an out-of-this-world amount of pride.

The site made a tungsten carbide tooth blank that’s currently mounted to a core drill on NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars last month. The blank is involved in one of the six-wheeled rover’s key tasks; cutting chalk-sized, intact rock cores that will hopefully be sent back to Earth and give a greater understanding into ancient microbial life on Mars.

“The team is just super enthusiastic and super excited,” said Ron Sivorot, business director at the Kennametal site in the Greater Victoria suburb of Langford. “Having it in use millions of miles away is actually pretty crazy.”

But even though they’re making a component used in space exploration, nothing really changed at the Langford site. Had nobody told the plant’s employees about the company’s involvement in the mission, they might’ve never known.

“The team on the shop floor didn’t even really know that there was anything going on, that it was anything different from anything else they make,” Sivorot said. “We make millions of pieces of carbide a year and to have these ones go to Mars, it’s obviously, definitely the farthest we’ve gone.”

Excitement started to grow in 2018 after Kennametal found out the blanks —which the Langford site has been supplying to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 2014 —would be aboard the interplanetary mission.

“It just kind of fit right into our work flow, so to be honest, we didn’t go above and beyond, this is basically the service we’re used to giving anyway, it just fit to serve NASA and JPL,” Sivorot said.

The Langford site employees watched from their work computers as the rover touched down on the red planet. Images of NASA’s control room engineers erupting with elation upon the six-wheeled rover’s interstellar landing matched the scene at the local Kennametal site. Sivorot said some of the plant’s space-loving employees were caught geeking out with celebratory air punches as they watched the landing back here on Earth.

READ: LIVE: You can watch NASA’s Rover landing on Mars today

The k92-grade tooth blank Kennametal makes for NASA looks like a small metal cube that’s smaller than a fingernail. To make the blank, Kennametal reforms powdered tungsten carbide by pressing, shaping and centring it and giving the piece a semi-finished grind. Once NASA gets the blank, they finish grinding the piece to their specific and high-tech requirements.

The k92-grade tooth blank is also used in industries like construction, oil and gas, agriculture and forestry. The Kennametal director said tungsten carbide is used because its strength and durability can perform in hostile scenarios.

“We have a variety of other customers that use it in similar applications, other than being on another planet,” Sivorot said. “We have a lot of confidence in this grade. It’s a very tough grade, fracture resistant, wear resistant, it’s an ideal grade for this solution, so we’re confident that it’ll do what it needs to do on Mars.”

NASA says Mars was 205 million kilometres form Earth when Perseverance landed, but the rover equipped with the Kennametal product travelled 471 million kilometres in total since last summer’s launch.

“Which is super wild,” Sivorot said, “it’s actually one of those fun stories you go home and tell your kids about.”

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