'TransFormers' could beam light into permanently shadowed craters

Aug 27, 2013 by Elizabeth Howell, Universe Today
A crater on Mercury at the edge of the larger Oskison crater located in the plains north of Caloris basin. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Permanently shadowed craters on the moon or Mercury are one of the most exciting locations to search for water. Because the walls of these craters protect certain spots inside from the rays of the sun, it's quite possible for ice to lurk inside of there.

We've found ice on so-called airless worlds because of this trick of geometry. So how about exploring them? What's the best way to do so?

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts office suggests using TransFormers to get inside these places. No, not the awesome robots you see in the movies, but still something that has a certain degree of complication: "multifunctional platforms that can change their shape and function", according to the agency.

Like the iconic science fiction heroes, however, the TransFormers would be able to unfold and change their shape. These machines could relay information between a rover and an orbiting satellite, or reflect on to a target (say, a solar-powered rover).

The challenge with putting a rover in a permanently shadowed crater is figuring out how to power it. Nuclear power sources have special handling considerations during preparation and launch that must be taken into account for safety reasons. Solar power, however, would not be possible in these craters given there is no sunlight.

Putting a TransFormer at the crater's edge, however, could make the environment a friendly one for a rover powered by the sun. It could reflect light inside and provide a for the rover to keep moving.

NASA’s TransFormers mission concept as it could be deployed on Mercury. Credit: NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts

And once that rover starts running around, it would have immense scientific benefits, NASA stated.

"For example, water found in the permanently shadowed areas of craters on the Moon or Mercury can reveal clues about and history, and could be used as a resource for astronauts," the agency wrote.

This could even be extended to the Red Planet, which offers the enticing possibility of stumbling across life.

Solar-panelled rovers are already used on Mars. Here, the Spirit rover’s solar panels were covered with dust until a gust of wind blew it off in 2006. Credit: NASA

"Cave exploration on Mars offers the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life; furthermore, caves are time capsules preserving geochemical traces and may safely shelter future human explorers."

Explore further: 'Sail rover' could explore hellish Venus

More information: www.nasa.gov/content/transformers-for-extreme-environments/#.UhyS85I3Dtv

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