A team of Ukrainians won the People’s Choice award in the NASA SpaceApps Challenge 2016 for its “Mars Hopper” design concept for a space probe to explore Mars. The Mars Hopper is a robotic probe fueled by carbon dioxide that can skip around the surface of the planet like a grasshopper – hence the name.
While the idea itself isn’t new, the Ukrainian team is the first to create an accurate computer simulation of a Mars Hopper that uses a nuclear CO2 engine, which is important considering the main component of the atmosphere of Mars is carbon dioxide. The probe is able to fly by accumulating radioisotope energy and converting it into CO2 (or dry ice) by changing its phase from solid to supercritical liquid. While landing, the probe’s “dynamic harvester” catches dry ice for its next flight.
To reduce the weight of the probe, the researchers designed its fuselage to be made with composite materials. Taking into account the conditions on Mars, the Ukrainian team has calculated that the device should weigh no more than 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and have an 8.5-meter (334-inch) wingspan. It could reach speeds of up to 360 kilometers (223 miles) per hour.
According to Nikolay Denisenko, co-author on the official entry in the competition, the only alternative source of energy that might have been also used was solar, but “the panels used in space are too heavy.”
The team is currently planning to create two prototypes of the aircraft to test both its aerodynamics and other functions on Earth. Minus the isotopic thermo-electric generator – the system that actually converts the CO2 into propellant – almost all the materials they require can be found in Ukraine.
To learn more about the Mars Hopper, check out this interview with Denisenko below: