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A Nuclear-Powered Mars Hopper

Researchers say a vehicle could explore Mars more efficiently by collecting gas from the planet’s atmosphere to use as propellant.
November 17, 2010

Researchers at the Space Research Center in the United Kingdom have developed a concept for a Mars rover that would use nuclear power and propellant gathered from the Martian atmosphere to hop a kilometer at a time. A vehicle that hops such a distance could cover diverse areas faster than current wheeled rovers, says Hugo Williams, lead researcher for the new hopper concept.

Taking giant leaps across a planet is not a new idea. Researchers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts have developed a prototype of such a vehicle. But the recent work stands out because it would gather carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere, heat it up, and discharges it through a rocket nozzle to propel the vehicle. While it will take the vehicle about a week to refuel after making a hop, Williams says having its fuel source in-situ would extend its operational time and range. The hopper would also uses a nuclear-powered engine so it would not be reliant on solar panels for energy like the current generation of rovers .

Richard Ambrosi, a researcher at the Space Research Center, says that the vehicle would use a guidance, navigation, and control system already used by other spacecraft and would be mostly autonomous. The work was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

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