Sterile Spheres: Small Rovers with Planet-Wide Range

Authors: Colin Bruce Jack

Small unmanned vehicles deployed from a single landing point can comprehensively explore Mars in a few months. Each vehicle comprises a hermetically sealed transparent container, an ellipsoidal shell of low-expansion glass whose surface has been totally sterilised by flash heating to temperature sufficient to decompose all organic chemicals. An inner shell contains gas at Earth-standard temperature and pressure. All moving parts are housed within this inner shell, so off-the-shelf motors, bearings and lubricants with robustly verified working lifetimes can be used, minimizing development cost and ensuring circumplanetary range. A vacuum gap between the inner and outer shells provides thermal insulation and contains solar cells and cameras.
A substantial part of the vehicle’s mass is mounted within the inner shell, connected to a central axle about which it can be turned so as to cause the vehicle to roll forward. This mass can also be displaced sideways so that the vehicle turns as it rolls.
Continuous thrust produced in this way is at most about one-third of the vehicle’s weight. However a second propulsion method can extract the vehicle from almost any pit, slippery sand area or other potential trap. A flywheel, normally stationary, is spun up to high speed then braked suddenly. The resulting large torque causes the vehicle to turn end-over-end. Thus it can climb a steep slope, move across soft sand with a scooping effect like a paddle wheel, or leap up a small cliff or across a crevasse with a pole-vault style takeoff.
The vehicle can navigate autonomously for long periods. Several methods by which it can harvest information about its immediate environment, and periodically return large volumes of data, are described.

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[v1] 2017-07-28 15:09:05

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