Researchers at MIT have devised a prototype of a lightweight rover, similar to a flying saucer, that can float on the surface of the Moon and other worlds without atmosphere, such as asteroids. This new device would be powered by the electric field that accumulates due to solar radiation and the surrounding plasma . In the absence of air, exposure to the Sun creates a charge that can levitate dust more than a meter above the ground, so this energy could be harnessed. The rover would be made of a material called Mylar , a plastic sheet that naturally has the same charge when the sun's rays hit it. Small beams of ions would be used to charge the vehicle and increase the surface's natural charge, counteracting gravity.
The conclusions have just been published in the 'Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets'.
“With a levitating rover, you don't have to worry about wheels or moving parts,” Paulo Lozano , an MIT engineer and one of the authors of the article, said in a statement . The terrain of an asteroid can be totally uneven, and as long as you have a controlled mechanism to keep your rover floating, then you could traverse very rough and unexplored terrain, without having to physically dodge the asteroid. ”
It would use ion thrusters, a type of space propulsion that uses a beam of ions (electrically charged molecules or atoms) for propulsion. As for the fuel, I would use molten salt, which when struck with an electrical charge shoots out of the ' nozzles ' of the thrusters like a kind of lightning bolt. Here, the charge is transferred to the surface to complement its own natural charge. Although the first prototype has yet to be built, mathematical models suggest that it might work: the idea would provide enough thrust to lift the rover off the ground.
In a laboratory experiment that used ionic-liquid ion sources to create an electrostatic force, the team was able to levitate a small, palm-sized vehicle that weighed about 60 grams . The amount of force required would depend on the size of the planetary body. “This type of ionic design uses very little energy to generate a lot of voltage,” says Lozano. The energy required is so small that I could do this almost for free. ' The current analysis only proves that levitation is possible. To bring the rover to a respectable height, more models will be needed, the researchers confirm, although the calculations are encouraging.
This type of rover could also explore large asteroids regardless of their uneven surface. “We thought of using this like the Hayabusa missions that were launched by the Japanese space agency,” says Oliver Jia-Richards , a NASA space technology researcher at MIT. 'That spacecraft operated around a small asteroid and deployed small rovers on its surface. Similarly, we believe that a future mission could send small floating rovers to explore the surface of the Moon and other asteroids. ”
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