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May 19, 2015 11:50 AM EDT

MARSDROP Mission Hopes to Land 'Microprobes' on Red Planet Via Hang Gliders


To get a better, more complete look at Mars, scientists are thinking small in comparison to the roving science labs currently trekking the Red Planet's surface.

According to, a team of scientists is planning a mission called MARSDROP, which involves two small landers. Called "microprobes," the landers would reach the surface of Mars via hang gliders dispatched from a larger spacecraft.

"Instead of a traditional parachute, MARSDROP pops out a steerable parawing that enables targeted delivery of a microprobe. Using terrain-relative video navigation, a pinpoint landing within tens of meters would be achievable. This MARSDROP capability opens up a number of very interesting, previously unreachable, sites for surface-based investigations," Rebecca Williams, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) who came up with the concept, said in a statement. "In addition, MARSDROP can help lay the groundwork for future human exploration of Mars by characterizing biohazards like Martian dust and assessing the availability of key resources, such as water from which oxygen and rocket propellant can be made."

LOOK: An illustration of the MARSDROP mission.

Assisting in the project are Matthew Eby, of the Aerospace Corporation and a team of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers led by Robert Staehle. Unlike the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers currently exploring Mars, the microprobes will be able to land more precisely and go places the larger bots cannot.

"What is particularly exciting about this new approach is the possibility of landing in new locations like the canyons in Valles Marineris or at modern geologically-active sites such as south polar geysers or locations with inferred seasonal release of surface water flows. This provides the opportunity to tackle a range of science questions that aren't possible in the near-term with existing landing site restrictions," Williams said. "With MARSDROP we can exploit the excess mass capability on the cruise-stage vehicle to enhance the science return from each mission."

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