Destination: Red Planet
HIW chats to Michael Williams the Mission Systems Engineer for the Mars Hopper.
1. What is the aim of the Mars Hopper?
Well I suppose it shares its aims with other exploration vehicles on mars. It will investigate signs of water and previous life. If you ignore the science, the Hopper will potentially travel much further and access places you couldn’t otherwise do with a Rover.
2. How will it improve on previous Rovers?
The advantage is the ability to travel further and faster. You can jump from one location to the next and traverse over valleys, boulder fields and cliffs.
3. What sort of system does it use for movement?
This is where it becomes entirely different from a Rover. The major alteration is that it uses a rocket engine for propulsion. The really clever aspect of it is that it uses the Martian atmosphere as its fuel. Special systems on board collect, compress and store the gas into tanks. You then pump it through to make thrust. The big problem with rocket fuel is the fuel needed so this is a major advantage and a game changer. You could keep going forever!
4. What are the radioisotopes that are used to power the Hopper?
This is what allows it to work. One of the big challengers on Mars is getting enough power. You can’t just rely on solar panels. With the Sun being weaker, you don’t get a huge amount of power. On the Hopper, an RTG (Radioisotope Thermal Generator) turns heat into electricity and that’s how we generate our power, night and day. An isotope source generates the power. It gets extremely hot and the compressed gas from the atmosphere is superheated and used as fuel.
5. Where and how have you tested it?
It is all a paper study at this point. We are not at the physical stage yet which is when its gets time consuming and expensive. We’ve put some designs on paper and we need to be confident we’ll get decent results if we are to go any further. Other companies have tested similar ideas and it’s a concept that has been around for a while.
Credit: ESA/Airbus Defence and Space
6. How will it be brought to Mars?
Getting it there and landing it is actually one of the more understood parts. Like Curiosity, there will be a normal rocket launch. A carrier spacecraft will get in there safely and then there will be a descent into the atmosphere and to the surface. It’s what happens when we got on the surface that is the novel part of what we’ve done.
7. How long will it be in Mars for and what will it examine?
The mission will likely be around two years but depends on the environment and science objectives. Perhaps several hundred hops.
It will use a robotic arm with a drill on it. However, we have found that storing and using the fuel will take longer than expected. Maybe several weeks or even months between each hop.
8. What is its current situation? Launch date?
The ESA have taken our work away and will decide what to do with it next. I’d be quite conservative as one of the purposes of the work was to see where else the work could be applied. There is no immediate plan to test, build and launch.
9. What is the next stage of Mars exploration/colonisation?
That’s a big question! I would say that the global consensus is to find signs of life and water. The best big system we are working towards is getting a sample of material from Mars back to Earth. It is a lot more difficult that it sounds and is a medium-term goal. Colonisation is the long-term goal and I don’t see why it can’t happen!