Every year NASA organizes one of the world’s largest international hackathons – International Space Apps Challenge. In just 48 hours all registered teams need to produce real solutions with a focus on space exploration. This year Ukraine participated for the first time. Right off the bat, the Ukrainian team won the Space Apps Challenge hackathon with their Mars Hopper project – an autonomous aircraft designed for investigation of Mars’s North and South Poles as well as their surroundings.
In our new article, a part of our dedicated articles about Innovations, we’d like to tell you more about this unique project by the Ukrainian team.
Embracing the Challenge
The main idea of the Journey to Mars challenge was to design the elements of space pioneering necessities that would allow exploring the planet further prior to sending a real human mission to the Red Planet. Drones became a focus of the Ukrainian team studies. Autonomous drones may become the first “inhabitants” of Mars, driving planet studies even further and continuing existing Mars Exploration Rover and static landers missions.
The Ukrainian team decided to design an unmanned drone-based aircraft system for investigation of Martian polar ice caps and their regions. While searching for a solution, developers faced a few issues. Firstly, familiar energy resources on Mars are mostly unavailable. Secondly, drone navigation has to be autonomous, as Mars’s magnetic field is too weak, and there are no satellites required for navigation near the planet.
Unlocking Mars Secrets
The team offered an elegant solution to the power source issue: with plenty of carbon dioxide (CO2) on Mars available in the form of dry ice, Hopper can use CO2 as fuel. Radioisotope reactor will convert the CO2 solid form into gas allowing the craft to explore Mars by hopping around (hence, the name of the project) with jet thrust created from supercritical CO2. After a hop, Mars Hopper will land to harvest fuel and hop again.
Ukrainians need to design an autonomous navigation system to navigate the drone. This system will be based on a neural network, which will process location and navigation paths data received from stereoscopic video cameras.
It is worth mentioning that in 2010 British scientists designed a concept of a similar vehicle – a CO2-based nuclear Mars Exploration hopper, but after 6 years of development, the project, apparently, is still in the works.
Watch the Official Mars Hopper Presentation [Video]
The NASA Hackathon victory strongly inspired the Ukrainian team to make Mars Hopper a working Ukrainian Space project that will be used in the future Mars Exploration Programs. Ukraine has a strong technological and scientific base. But there’s more!
In order to make it viable and prove their concept, the winning team will build a platform for technology processing and two prototypes for further land and stratospheric testing. For now, Mars Hopper Team is looking for extra human and financial resources. They have already registered their project on GitHub and continue negotiation with NASA and State Space Agency of Ukraine.
Now Mars Hopper Team are getting ready to visit the United States and attend the launch of the NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission at the Cape Canaveral in September 2016.
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