MIT wants to explore the Moon with a levitating flying saucer

Forget the rovers and their vulgar wheels; MIT would like to revolutionize space exploration with a flying saucer capable of effortlessly levitating on the surface of a celestial body.

A staple of kitsch science fiction from the last century, the concept of the flying saucer has been gaining ground in recent years. But these devices may be out of fashion, that does not mean that the concept is no longer relevant, and those who say the opposite risk attracting the wrath of MIT. The prestigious institution is in fact working on a machine based on this concept, with the objective of developing a new generation of vehicles for space exploration.

In essence, this concept resembles a pancake stuffed with futuristic technology that will be able to “levitate” above the ground of other planets, even in the total absence of an atmosphere. Because unlike Mars, many celestial bodies do not have a sufficiently dense atmosphere to hope to fly there. In the current state of our knowledge, it is therefore unthinkable to send there a cousin of Ingenuity, the small Martian drone which keeps Perseverance company on the Red Planet. To achieve this, MIT researchers seek to adapt a other mode of propulsion which harnesses the sun’s radiation.

A levitating saucer

Even though it is technically solar energy, this concept has little to do with the photovoltaic cells in our solar panels; it is based on a totally different concept, namely the ion propulsion. It is based on a stock of molten salts which, once subjected to an electrical charge such as that produced by the impact of solar winds, begins to spit out ions with a force that is certainly very limited, but sufficient to propel a machine into the empty space.

It is low power technology, but incredibly efficient. “This type of ionic propulsion uses very little power to generate a very high voltage,” explains engineer Paulo Lozano, a space exploration expert who helped bring the concept to life years ago. “You need so little that you could almost do it ‘for free’,” he insists.

This technology is usually used to send probes to the far reaches of the cosmos. Now, MIT seeks to adapt this concept to a planetary environment, and therefore in the presence of gravity. A very complicated conversion from a technical point of view; but the first tests apparently turned out to be quite conclusive. The Lozano team managed to levitate a small machine weighing around sixty grams using this technology.

A complex concept, but immensely promising

This test confirms the theoretical feasibility that had been suggested by their mathematical models. They will now have to find how to adapt it to a machine large enough to carry scientific instruments and means of communication. A task that promises to be difficult, but the game is worth the candle; this would constitute a colossal advance, knowing that the flight (in particular semi-stationary) is an extremely energy consuming activity.

In addition, a device of this type would be a real blessing for space explorers. Because moving on these unknown and sometimes difficult to pass terrain is not trivial. This requires researchers to plan each maneuver with great care to protect the wheels and the rest of the locomotion system. And it is not a question of overzealousness, but a question of life and death for the mission, since the slightest failure at this level could pin the machine to the ground for eternity.

To remedy this problem, researchers are developing ever more reliable and resilient systems … but the ideal might be to get rid of them completely. “

“With a levitating rover, we wouldn’t need to worry about moving parts anymore,” says Lozano. “On an asteroid, the terrain can be very steep. But as long as you have a mechanism that keeps a rover floating, you could venture into uncharted areas, ”he explains. This would also make it possible to significantly reduce the preparation time for transfer and avoidance maneuvers. What massively accelerate the exploration of these celestial bodies, and therefore the discovery of the mysteries they conceal. With all due respect to the authors of the last century, flying saucers are not reserved for aliens!

The text of the study is available here.

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