Robotic Rock Climbers Could Hunt For Signs of Alien Life on Mars
According to a new paper published in the journal, Astrobiology, an intrepid robotic vehicle that can scale steep cliff faces may be able to uncover the secrets held within areas of Mars that are otherwise out of reach to human explorers. For more than a decade now, the Association Planete Mars in France has been working on developing a robotic vehicle capable of traversing some of the trickiest terrain known to man. According to the research carried out by APM's Alan Souchier, recent tests of the Cliff Reconnaissance Vehicle (CRV) or CliffBot suggest that, with certain improvements, such a vehicle could play a vital role in exploring the rocky surface of Mars.
The steep cliffs and gullies known to be present on Mars could offer a shortcut when it comes to uncovering signs of ancient life on the planet. As with the archaeological digs that aim to uncover ancient life on our Earth, finding signs of ancient beings on Mars would require a mission to drill down deep into the planet's surface. Such a feat would require a great deal of time and heavy machinery, something that is not readily available or suitable to a manned mission on an alien planet. However, the naturally occurring canyons that litter the Red Planet's surface could offer access to this deeper, older material. Reaching these deep dips in the landscape would prove near impossible for a space-suited astronaut or wheeled rover, but a vehicle similar to Cliffbot could be used to scale the vertical cliffs and take samples of previously unobtainable rock.
(A researcher wears the special Aouda.X simulation suit during testing in Morocco - Credit Katja Zanella-Kux/OeWF)
In February 2013, Cliffbot was taken for field testing in Morocco's Erfoud Mountains. There, the robot was controlled by scientists wearing AoudaX. Spacesuits which simulate the conditions an astronaut may experience on Mars. During this testing, Cliffbot was lowered down cliff faces by its spacesuited controller on a length of retractable cable, reaching distances of almost 150 feet and besting its previous record by almost 100 feet. Attached to the robot was a HazCam that helped operators get a better look at the potential hazards the robot might face on its journey. The robot's high definition, wide-view camera was able to transmit crisp images of fossils contained within the North African cliff face, something that could prove invaluable in any similar exploration on Mars.
(Cliffbot is lowered into a canyon by its spacesuited controller - Credit Katja Zanella-Kux/OeWF)
Although the robot did run into a few complications, the results from the 2013 expedition were considered a success and the APM team are already working on new modifications based off of the hazards they encountered. Souchier and his team recognize that Cliffbot is far from a finished product, but their paper contained an air of enthusiasm that maybe one day, this rock climbing robot could make it to Mars....
"The exercise demonstrated that Cliffbot is capable of examining hard-to-reach rock strata in cliff faces but that it needs further mechanical modification to improve its ability to overcome some particular terrain obstacles and situational awareness by the operator." said Souchier. When asked about the modifications they wanted to make to Cliffbot, Souchier replied in confident fashion saying "These modifications are technically rather easy to implement."
Souchier et al are planning further testing of Cliffbot in Utah sometime in 2015.