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A View from Brittany Sauser

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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