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Mars NASA Robotics Space Science

Could the Tumbleweed Rover Dominate Mars? 105

astroengine writes "Mars has been visited by orbiters, landers and rovers, but could the future of Martian exploration be inspired by a wind-blown sphere? NASA and other research institutions have been developing the Mars Tumbleweed rover for the last decade, but with the help of the Planetary Science Institute, the Tumbleweed is now vying for some serious funding to further develop the technologies required. Although the Tumbleweed would be wholly dependent on the prevailing winds on the Martian surface, the lightweight and relatively cheap design could lead the way for a 'swarm' of independent Tumbleweeds to explore vast regions of the planet (video link). In 2003 and 2004, NASA even tested an inflatable Tumbleweed prototype on Greenland and Antarctica — it traversed hundreds of miles with ease, continually relaying location and environmental data."
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Could the Tumbleweed Rover Dominate Mars?

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  • "Tumbleweed" is a perfect description of what will be left of the space program after the current administration is done with it!
    • by TheJokeExplainer ( 1760894 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:38AM (#31379674)
      the parent is of course, referring to the cutbacks the Obama administration has done with the space program like the axing of the Constellation Program manned moon missions [].
      • by confused one ( 671304 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @09:23AM (#31380230)
        The budget I read added more money to NASA's budget. But yes, it did kill Constellation.
        • Yeah, but if we can't even reliably (and cheaply) get to the moon, we have no hope of Mars, or other planets for that matter, let alone extra sol planetary systems. We're stuck on this planet, and we're screwing it seriously. Obama has been like Australia's Kevin Rudd - all talk, no action. At least Bush Jr did something (admittedly not good, but he did *do* something). All Obama does is talk. He's the most unimpressive president I can remember. Inaction does more harm than bad action.


    • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:47AM (#31379698) Homepage Journal

      I'm not even going to bash you cause I've seen so much of these kinds of snarky comments lately that I've come to expect them. But if you could be so kind, could you please tell me where you're getting your opinion from? I mean, I assume you're not actually a worker in Florida or Alabama who has a vested interest in extending the killed-14-but-plenty-left Shuttle or pretending that Canstellation was ever going anywhere, so obviously some pundit somewhere has filled your head with this baffling opinion so who was it? Was it Dr. Harrison Schmitt speaking at the Institute of Human and Machine Cognition in Florida (what the hell kind of a platform is that anyway?) with his absurd comments about China and Russia - the comments about Russia being more absurd than the ones about China but only slightly - which basically amounted to "reds up the beds and now in space!!" Or was it Andy Pasztor at the Wall Street Journal who has done nothing but demonstrate just how long journalism has sunk to, misrepresenting first Burt Rutan's comments - causing Burt to publish his communications in full and with not even an apology from the WSJ - and then misrepresenting an internal NASA memo and blatantly fabricating quotes saying Bolden was seeing a "Plan B" prompting Bolden to release a denial.. and again, without even an apology from the WSJ. Ironically, one place you couldn't be getting this nonsense from is Fox News...

      • by jhoegl ( 638955 )
      • +1
    • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @06:14AM (#31379760) Journal

      That is fitting, so the space program will match the economy the republicans left the current administration.

      • by Oxford_Comma_Lover ( 1679530 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @10:24AM (#31380522)

        > That is fitting, so the space program will match the economy the republicans left the current administration.

        Dear SmallFurryCreature (593017),

        The economy is not the fault of any given administration. The most recent economic crisis was due primarily to the actions of a few people in the NY financial district, and to the failure of the many to realize how broad the consequences would be when that group inevitably failed. It was slightly exacerbated by widely-performed mortgage fraud, but it was really a question of a few guys on wall street who decided to start trading credit-default swaps and the like irresponsibly.

        Everyone blames the economy on the administration in power, to the extent where any major event on the market is very likely to determine the outcome of a Presidential Election. This is an irrational reaction on the part of the people, but it occurs anyway. The people in government with the most power for this kind of thing are actually the senators and representatives, but they rarely regulate the banking segment of the economy since it gives them money. Most of a senator's day is raising money. If he has two minutes between events, he's on the phone with donors. If he's sitting in the back of his car as someone drives him to work, he's on the phone with donors. Numerous donors are in finance. Therefore it takes something extraordinary for the government to even consider regulating finance.



        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by jo42 ( 227475 )

          Dear HighlyEducatedIdiot,

          The actions "of a few people in the NY financial district" can be traced directly to the deregulation of their industry by a previous administration.


          • I have to agree.

            Economic cycles are beyond the control of any administration, but the Bush administration had a severe negative impact in at least two ways: 1) Financial deregulation 2) Gigantic, enormous deficits which are currently affecting the value of the dollar. I could even throw a likely third in there 3) Loss of goodwill and trust in the USA from international investors due to rhetoric and wars - but this is not as clear. And hell, even a fourth 4) Failure to address Chinese currency manipula
        • Echoing another respondent - jo42 -

          The economic recession that we're in right now is a combination of people forgetting why regulations were put in place after the Great Depression and people (maybe with good intentions) trying to force legislation for everyone to own property. There were no recessions of this current magnitude since the great depression. This was due in large part to regulations that restricted business from being complete fucking idiots. Beginning in 80s people started thinking, our e

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by jimbolauski ( 882977 )
        So how long until the current administration will be accountable for their actions unemployment has only risen since Obama has been in office.
      • Of course Obama has increased NASA's funding, so that they can turn their attention to more important matters, like global warming.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Bearhouse ( 1034238 )

      Well, why not? The US essentially ended the first space race by making multiple landings on the moon. Still an extraordinary achievement, and frankly an amazing one given the technology available at the time. 1969, remember.
      Gentlemen, I salute you. (And no, I'm not American...)
      What do you do to top that?
      It's like gambling; sometimes it's better to get up from the table and keep your winnings.
      The shuttle program was - frankly - a disaster, financially but especially and unfortunately in human lives.
      Let t

    • This "tumbleweed" concept is cheap and affordable, may be a little unpredictable in the direction it will go, but will ultimately allow many more vehicles doing a lot more exploration in aggregate.

      So yes, this is exactly what will be left of the space program after the administration is done. Sounds like a good thing to me.

    • "Tumbleweed" is a perfect description of what will be left of the space program after the current administration is done with it!

      Thus setting the perfect stage for an old-west style shootout... on Mars!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by joggle ( 594025 )

      Actually, you have it backwards. The programs that were cut would have taken virtually all of NASA's budget, making other exploration programs like this nearly impossible to fund.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:13AM (#31379600) Journal

    I'm sure they've thought about this, but is the atmosphere really dense enough to push something carrying any sort of payload around? I think atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of earth's whereas gravity is still 1/2 that of earth's. Will it have a "pump" for slow leaks? Self sealing against punctures?

    On the other hand, if it really is light enough and the "fabric" is tough and heat resistant, maybe it can deorbit WITHOUT using a heat shield. Now that would really save a LOT of weight and might make the whole idea worthwhile. I seem to remember there were once emergency escape plans for astronauts that essentially had them envelope themselves in a (very) large foam shield. If you make it light and fluffy enough it might "float" down from space. (Or glide down in the case of the paper(!) airplane that a japanese astronaut at the ISS flew back to earth).

    Just curious.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      i saw something about this lately somewhere, cant remember the source. But for sand and rocks that are moved around mars, the winds are too weak, however there are infrequent strong gusts which can move sand around, and once moving, because of the low gravity, only small winds are required to maintain the motion for significant periods of time.

    • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @06:48AM (#31379862) Homepage Journal

      I'm sure they've thought about this, but is the atmosphere really dense enough to push something carrying any sort of payload around? I think atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of earth's whereas gravity is still 1/2 that of earth's.

      Gravity is 38% of gravity on Earth. Atmospheric pressure is at most 1% of the pressure on Earth. But the funny thing is that it would be technically possible to land a winged aircraft on Mars. Wing loading would be low and landing speed would be high. Part of the reason is that carbon dioxide is quite a bit denser than nitrogen. So while the pressure is low, the density is not so low.

  • One, inability to use feedback to direct it towards interesting phenomena. Even if you can stop it, it doesn't mean you can get close enough to anomalous features on the surface. Two, lack of ability to escape local minima. I don't know how much of a problem this would be on mars, but I just went to death valley in February and saw the rows of tumbleweeds stuck on the fences and in crevices (useful if you plan to sprout and reproduce).
    • Re:Two problems (Score:4, Interesting)

      by onion2k ( 203094 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:32AM (#31379658) Homepage

      In reverse order... The second problem is relatively easy to overcome simply by nature of the tumbleweed rover's size and shape. If it's big enough not to fall between the sorts of rocks on Mars' surface, and it has no protrusions to snag on things, then it won't get stuck.

      The first problem is really about the nature of the mission. The idea of a tumbleweed rover is to gather large datasets about large areas, it's not designed to examine small, interesting things. It's rather like saying Google Earth isn't the right tool to see what beetles are living under the rocks in my garden. True, it's not, but neither is it supposed to be.

    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )

      I just went to death valley in February and saw the rows of tumbleweeds stuck on the fences and in crevices

      Compressed air jets may be able to get tumblerovers loose. Because the atmosphere is thin on Mars, such air would pack a punch.


    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Nyeerrmm ( 940927 )

      This would be a terrible way to do a single vehicle. However, they want to 'swarm' these instead. While each individual vehicle may be limited, if you have hundreds canvasing a region, correlating the data between each 'tumbleweed' would make the information more valuable than the mere sum of its parts.

      I don't think this replaces something like the MERs, but rather complements them.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @05:28AM (#31379646) Journal

    "OK guys, where the F*** are we now?"

    (due to the huge communication lag between Mars and Earth, rovers are controlled by giving a set of commands, and then checking the result the next day (or next Sol, to be exact))

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      (due to the huge communication lag between Mars and Earth, rovers are controlled by giving a set of commands, and then checking the result the next day (or next Sol, to be exact))

      Hey! That was my job!

      • Hey! That was my job!

        Parent is, of course, referring to the joke that he is the Joke Explainer and that it is his job to explain jokes.

      • On the off-chance you're not just pulling our legs: which rover did you control/which team did you belong to? And why the past tense? Both programs have received a grant for continuation, no?

        • Whooooooosh!!!
          • I know, I know, I tried to reply with a corrected comment immediately after, but Slashdot wouldn't let me.

            Anyhow... well played JokeExplainerXplainer.

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            Parent is, of course, referring to the sound the joke made as it went past grandparent's head.

            Maybe he just didn't see it.

            He is, after all...

            The blind biker.
            • YYEEEAAAHHHhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!
              • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

                While the Caruso Method [] is widely studied, little is known about the man. Like a grimacing chameleon, Caruso blends in with his surroundings. He is not just the star of a show that takes place in Miami. Caruso is Miami.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              Maybe he just didn't see it.

              He is, after all...

              The blind biker.

              Well, cut me some slack: I'm at home with a flu, and so is the wife and our 4 month-old baby boy. It's easy to miss some tiny detail from this end of the business.

              Anyhow, this thread keeps on giving and is awesome, even if I'm the butt of the joke.

              • Anyhow, this thread keeps on giving and is awesome, even if I'm the butt of the joke.

                This is the internet, where you're always the but of some joke.

    • by jamesh ( 87723 )

      The other frequently asked question will be "what the hell was that?". Like the face on mars, there will be a heap of random rock outcrops and shadows that look really interesting from a certain angle, and unfortunately you can't easily go round for a second look. For that reason alone I think we should do it - a new conspiracy theory could be born every second!

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) *
        "a new conspiracy theory could be born every second!"

        Youtube has got that covered, no need to go to mars.
  • by Hurricane78 ( 562437 ) <deleted.slashdot@org> on Saturday March 06, 2010 @06:05AM (#31379744)

    ...then why not add some solar cells and a motor, so it can actually move to where it wants.

    It will clean the cells, by tumbling and turning half of them upside-down.

    But I don’t know if the wind on Mars is really strong enough for all of this...

    • Kind of pointless really. Once it blows into a Martian Barbed wire fence and gets caught the extra maneuverability will be wasted.

    • We actually had this idea (I'm a grad student in aerospace engineering) a few years ago, and one guy managed to throw together a small 'roll-bot' that bhas a motor attached to the axis of a spherical shell, and a weight on a servo that hanges below that axis. The motor controls the speed, and you can turn it by moving the weight so it causes the wheel to tilt. Works pretty well, and would be good for a planetary probe because its completely sealed, so if you have a way to clean the surface you wouldn't ha
  • []

    I can see any intelligent Martian life running for the hills :)

    I wonder if they scared the crap out of anyone in Greenland


  • by Anonymous Coward

    Day one the tumble weed rover heroically rolls across the Martian terrain. Day two the rover discoveries a previously unknown Martian crater. Day three examines bottom of crater, day four same, day five same, ..., day 365 rover celibrates it's first year on Mars from the bottom of it's newly discovered crater.

  • This sounds like an intersting idea in principal. I do think that we need to kickstart the whole human exploration effort. Scientific advancement in this area seems to be slipping.
  • It could be mistaken for an alien! []
  • by RevWaldo ( 1186281 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @09:18AM (#31380198)
    We demand bouncing, followed by rolling, followed by rolling of the third type.
  • "That's an interesting rock, let's look a bit more closely... woah, no time for that, we're off again."
    "It sure is windy today. I feel a little seasick."
    "Was that a pair of eyes we just went past?"
    [sometime later after a change in the weather]
    "The forecast is calm for the next month. Has anybody got any great ideas for studying this patch of sand we're stuck on?"
  • A guy walking around on the Martian surface.
  • by schmidt349 ( 690948 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @10:17AM (#31380482)
    Doesn't the Tumbleweed prototype in this photo [] look suspiciously like a certain Number 6-devouring border guard? What are these scientists really planning?
  • Location data could be difficult. There's no GPS on Mars. The cheapest solution would be to give the Tumbleweeds an omnidirectional beacon strobe. Then it could be spotted from orbit when it's on the night side. Accurate location info would be easiest to get just after dusk and before dawn because landmarks on the day side would be visible to the satellite.
  • Ballons (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Saturday March 06, 2010 @11:03AM (#31380784) Journal
    I would prefer a couple of balloons to float around with small amounts of equipment: weather info; Camera below: magnetic sensor: radiation detector on top. That would give a lot of information on places to look at. In addition, the camera would be able to see much closer than could the sats, though it would not be controllable in terms of where to fly. But at this time, it is useful to get a closer look at the planet via serin dipity.
    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      The trouble is that Mars has an average atmospheric pressure of 0.6 kPa as opposed to Earth's 101.3 kPa. The reduced gravity will affect both lift of the balloon and the weight of the probe hanging below it so that cancels out. If we assume a hydrogen balloon though, the lift should be about 3x as large as on Earth based on gas density. My guesstimate is you need a balloon 70 times larger than on Earth to get the same lift. The balloon would have to be extremely thin and light and survive huge temperature c

      • by RoboRay ( 735839 )

        If we can manage to make parachutes and aerobraking work in the thin Martian atmosphere, I'm sure we can manage balloons. There have been some serious studies into sending balloon probes to Mars, I think by the ESA in particular.

  • New System? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nethead ( 1563 ) <> on Saturday March 06, 2010 @11:51AM (#31381042) Homepage Journal

    So we need a new system because the current rover design failed so catastrophically? /snark

    We have an outstanding current rover design and I'm sure that there are many small tweaks NASA would love to include in a Ver. 2. Let's just send a few more siblings of Spirit and Opportunity up to new areas. Maybe one (ok, two) designed to go pin god-damn medals on Spirit & Oppy. Let's build upon success.

    • I agree with you that the rover missions went beyond expectations by such a huge degree that we should be doing repeated missions (some tweaks to improve a few of the challenges experienced by the rovers). The goal of the rover missions is not the same as the goal of this tumbleweed mission. The former is to get detailed information on a small scale. The tumbleweeds might be able to traverse significant percentages of the planet to provide information on where to send the next pair of rovers.

  • That's how many it will take to dominate Mars.

    The first billion will fill in the craters and other depressions.

    The second billion will be able to roll freely on the resulting flat surface.
  • The damn thing is just going to get caught in a barbed wire fence.
  • A tumbleweed rover, would stand still, at some odd angle for weeks between storms, then get blown so fast, all the picture would have motion blur, (unless they put a very fast camera in it). But it would be great for weather sensing because it would detect every gust of wind.


    Solar System [] Feed @ Feed Distiller []

  • I am definitely vying for some serious funding. CAN HAZ MRZ PLZ?

  • And then the tumbleweed gets stuck in a hole and there goes the millions of dollars spent to send it there.
    • Were you watching? The idea is that these tumbleweeds are CHEAP -- no wheels, no motors, hardly any steering. If one of them gets stuck in a hole, no problem. It studies what it finds in the hole while the rest continue to roll around.

  • My kids have some absurdly large inflatable balls in the yard. Our yard has terrain. They always wind up in the bottom of a ditch somewhere.

"Hey Ivan, check your six." -- Sidewinder missile jacket patch, showing a Sidewinder driving up the tail of a Russian Su-27