ALTADENA, CA -- Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have, bynow, spent almost two years on the surface of Mars. They traveledseveral miles each, frequently stopping and analyzing scientifictargets with their cameras, spectrometers and other instruments touncover evidence of liquid water on Mars in the past. Their mission isa smashing success for NASA.
But what if NASA had a platform onMars that was able to cover these distances in a matter of hoursinstead and study the rocks on the surface in the same detail as roversdo? Scientific return from such a vehicle would be immense – scientistswould be able to study the whole planet in greater detail in a timespan of a single year.
While orbiters can look at virtually anypoint on the surface of a planet, they lack the resolution provided byinstruments on rovers or landers. Rovers, on the other hand, havelimited mobility and cannot travel very far from their landing site. Asthe atmosphere of Mars is very thin, an airplane at Mars would last forjust an hour until it runs out of fuel.
Global AerospaceCorporation of Altadena, CA proposes that the Mars exploration vehiclecombining the global reach similar to that of orbiters and highresolution observations enabled by rovers could be a balloon that canbe steered in the right direction and that would drop small sciencepackages over the target sites. The concept being developed by theGlobal Aerospace Corporation is funded by the NASA Institute forAdvanced Concepts (NIAC).
Balloons have been long recognized asunique, scientific platforms due to their relatively low cost and lowpower consumption. Two balloons flew in the atmosphere of Venus in1984. In the past the inability to control the path of Mars balloonshas limited their usefulness, and therefore scientific interest intheir use.
Global Aerospace Corporation has designed aninnovative device, called Balloon Guidance System (BGS) that enablessteering a balloon through the atmosphere. The BGS is an aerodynamicsurface – a wing – that hangs on a several kilometer-long tether belowthe balloon. The difference in winds at different altitudes create arelative wind at the latitude of the BGS wing, which in turn creates alifting force. This lifting force is directed sideways and can be usedto pull the balloon left or right relative to the prevailing winds.
Floatingjust several kilometers above the surface of Mars, the guided Marsballoons can observe rock formations, layerings in canyon walls andpolar caps, and other features – at very high resolution usingrelatively small cameras. They can be directed to fly over specifictargets identified from orbital images and to deliver small surfacelaboratories, that will analyze the site at the level of detail roverswould do. Instruments at the balloon's gondola can also measure tracesof methane in the atmospheric and follow its increasing concentrationsto the source on the ground. This way the search for existing orextinct life on Mars can be accelerated.
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