Stanford scientists develop new spacecraft to explore Martian moon

Jan. 10, 2013, 10:29 p.m.

In collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford researchers have recently developed a robotic platform with the potential to advance space research. The proposed program involves a mother spacecraft, The Phobos Surveyor, that deploys spiked, spherical rovers, referred to as “hedgehogs,” to the Martian moon Phobos.

Though most rovers have wheels, the “hedgehogs” will tumble and hop via spinning motors, gathering and then relaying information to Earth about the chemistry of the moon’s surface.

The platform was developed by Marco Pavone, assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford, who views his group’s work as a necessary element of future space exploration.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered,” Pavone said to the Stanford News Service. “Before sampling, we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface.”

The Phobos Surveyor will orbit Phobos, communicating with the deployed hedgehog to determine its position and orientation on the moon.

The project will aim to determine if Phobos is a former piece of Mars or an asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity. If they find that it did originate from Mars, its comparatively low gravity will present an opportunity for scientists to study its properties to pave the way for a human mission to Mars.

A Phobos Surveyor mission could occur within the next 10 to 20 years, and a test of the rovers will likely take place within the next four years.

— Molly Vorwerck

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