I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Light-powered nanocardboard robots dancing in the Martian sky searching for alien life

'We’re proposing an entirely different approach' lead prof tells The Reg

Light-propelled nanocardboard robots laden with sensors, flitting in the Martian atmosphere, could one day help us better understand the Red Planet.

Wait, nanocardboard, you ask? Yup. In this instance, this novel material is made of aluminum oxide tubes arranged in an alternating basket-weave pattern to form a hollow plate just 50nm thick. Outside gasses can pass through the tubes, and when light shines on one side of the nanocardboard, it creates a temperature difference that causes the gas to make it lift off.

This particular design was produced by an engineering team at the University of Pennsylvania; other approaches, inspired by corrugated paper cardboard, were previously put forward.


Behold your artist's illustration of nanocardboard robots hovering in the sky
Image credit: Bargatin Group, Penn Engineering ... Click to enlarge

“The air current through these micro-channels is caused by a classical phenomenon called thermal creep, which is a rarefied gas flow due to the temperature gradient along the channel wall,” Howard Hu, co-author of a paper published in Advanced Materials describing the material, said this week.

Hu, a mechanical engineering professor at the American university, and his colleagues envision a fleet of nanocardboard robots flitting around Mars, propelled by just the Sun's rays and the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. It helps that the unforgiving dust world's gravity is roughly a third of Earth's.

“The levitation mechanism works best at pressures between 1 and 1000 Pascals,” Igor Bargatin, lead author of the study and an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, told The Register. “Mars has an atmospheric pressure is about 600 Pascals on average, which is within the sweet spot of photophoretic levitation.”

They estimate that these minuscule flecks of material could carry payloads up to ten times their weight. Each nanocardboard plate weighs just a third of a milligram, though, so whatever it transports has to be incredibly light.

NASA's designs for the wheels on the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers

NASA reveals the new wavy Martian wheels it thinks can crush the red planet


However, if they could be packed with tiny chemical sensors, they could help scientists probe for possible signs of life. “On Mars, looking for water or methane would be very interesting. Water is probably necessary for life on Mars and methane may be produced by life,” Bargatin added.

Although the nanoscale material seems promising, prototype samples of the nanocardboard bots rose only about a centimetre off ground, and have only carried mock payloads made out of silicone rings, in lab experiments. However, this effort is still in its research phase: there's more work to be done.

“We need to optimize the lift force and payload first," Bargatin said. "After that, we need to work on stability and control issues, for example, how do you get the microflyer exactly where you want it to go despite the wind gusts and other perturbations?”

Still, the boffins can dream. They hope that their nanocardboard material could one day be used in space exploration. Deploying numerous tiny robots has advantages over heavy, complex machinery, such as NASA's helicopter-like Martian drone, Bargatin reckoned.

“The Mars Helicopter is very exciting, but it’s still a single, complicated machine," he said. "If anything goes wrong, your experiment is over, since there’s no way of fixing it. We’re proposing an entirely different approach that doesn’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Mars Express orbiter to get code update after 19 years
    And over millions of miles, too. Piece of cake!?

    The software on ESA's Mars Express spacecraft is to be upgraded after nearly two decades, giving the orbiter capabilities to hunt for water beneath the planet and study its larger moon, Phobos.

    Mars Express was launched on June 2, 2003, and was initially made up of two components: the Mars Express Orbiter and the Beagle 2 lander. Unfortunately, the lander failed to make contact with Earth after it was released and arrived at the surface of the Red Planet. It is presumed lost. The orbiter, however, is still working after 19 years in service, spinning around Mars.

    Now, engineers at the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), Italy, are revamping the spacecraft's software. The upgrade will allow the Mars Express Orbiter to continue searching for water locked beneath the Martian surface using its MARSIS radio-wave instrument and monitor the planet's closest satellite, Phobos, more efficiently. MARSIS is today operated by INAF and funded by the Italian Space Agency.

    Continue reading
  • NASA ignores InSight's battery woes in pursuit of data
    Space boffins: Nevermind ekeing out the battery, let it go out in a blaze of glory!

    Pondering what services to switch off to keep your laptop going just that bit longer? NASA engineers can relate, having decided the Mars InSight lander will go out on a high: they plan to burn through the remaining power to keep the science flowing until the bitter end.

    The InSight lander is in a precarious position regarding power. A build-up of dust has meant the spacecraft's solar panels are no longer generating anywhere near enough power to keep the batteries charged. The result is an automatic shutdown of the payload, although there is a chance InSight might still be able to keep communicating until the end of the year.

    Almost all of InSight's instruments have already been powered down, but the seismometer remains active and able to detect seismic activity on Mars (such as Marsquakes.) The seismometer was expected to be active until the end of June, at which point it too would be shut-down in order to eke out the lander's dwindling supply of power just a little longer.

    Continue reading
  • Mars helicopter needs patch to fly again after sensor failure
    NASA engineers continue to show Ingenuity as uplinking process begins

    The Mars Ingenuity helicopter is in need of a patch to work around a failed sensor before another flight can be attempted.

    The helicopter's inclinometer failed during a recommissioning effort ahead of the 29th flight. The sensor is critical as it will reposition the craft nearer to the Perseverance rover for communication purposes.

    Although not required during flight, the inclinometer (which consists of two accelerometers) is used to measure gravity prior to spin-up and takeoff. "The direction of the sensed gravity is used to determine how Ingenuity is oriented relative to the downward direction," said Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter chief pilot.

    Continue reading
  • NASA's 161-second helicopter tour of Martian terrain
    Ingenuity footage sent back to Earth via Perseverance, despite looming battery problem

    Video On Friday NASA released footage of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter flying further and faster than ever before.

    The film recorded during Ingenuity's 25th flight on April 8 when it flew 704 meters at up to 5.5 meters per second.

    In the sped-up footage shown below, the vehicle climbs to 10 meters, heads southwest, accelerates to max speed in under three seconds, and flies over Martian sand ripples and rock fields before landing on relatively flat terrain.

    Continue reading
  • NASA's InSight doomed as Mars dust coats solar panels
    The little lander that couldn't (any longer)

    The Martian InSight lander will no longer be able to function within months as dust continues to pile up on its solar panels, starving it of energy, NASA reported on Tuesday.

    Launched from Earth in 2018, the six-metre-wide machine's mission was sent to study the Red Planet below its surface. InSight is armed with a range of instruments, including a robotic arm, seismometer, and a soil temperature sensor. Astronomers figured the data would help them understand how the rocky cores of planets in the Solar System formed and evolved over time.

    "InSight has transformed our understanding of the interiors of rocky planets and set the stage for future missions," Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. "We can apply what we've learned about Mars' inner structure to Earth, the Moon, Venus, and even rocky planets in other solar systems."

    Continue reading
  • Mars Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance are talking again
    NASA drops heater temp to boost batteries as dust hits solar supply

    The long-lived Ingenuity helicopter has made contact with NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars after an unexpected communications blackout.

    Ingenuity just passed the milestone of a year of operations on the Red Planet, after being designed for five experimental test flights over 30 Martian days during 2021. Thus far, the helicopter has managed to fly more than 4.2 miles in 28 sorties, proving NASA's reputation for over-engineering its space kit.

    Ingenuity uses Perseverance as a base station to send data to and receive commands from Earth. Well, up until May 3, when communications between rover and helicopter dropped out. The problem? Dust, it turns out, which was stopping the helicopter from charging properly from its solar panels.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022