A lizard robot for Mars: Scientists dream while Curiosity snoozes

March 22, 2013 | 9:04 a.m.

Curiosity may be sitting idle during the solar conjunction (more on that below), but there’s fresh Mars-focused news.  Researchers have suggested  the rover could use a friend — a scuttling lizard robot.

Engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology reportedly came up with a robot whose appendages were inspired by lizards (as opposed to, say, the Hoth walkers from “The Empire Strikes Back,” which were obviously inspired by elephants).  The legs of the bot are designed to scamper over — not wade through — sand.

Hoth walker--elephant in battleDon’t laugh.  You’ll recall the fate of the Spirit rover on Mars– stuck in sand.  Spirit, which landed on Mars in 2004, became ensnared in soft sand in 2009. NASA tried to wiggle it free for months, but in 2010 the rover was declared officially entombed.

The rotating legs of the new robot work a bit like backward scoops, as Geekosystem reports.  The design would allow the robot to easily move over the surface of sandy alien planets.  The test robot is 5 inches long and weighs a third of a pound. But as NBC News’ John Roach opines, this line of research could eventually lead to “giant robotic lizards on missions to Mars.”

Curiosity does not have six legs. She has six wheels, and they were designed with sand and rocks in mind.  As NASA says, the “design allows the rover to go over obstacles (such as rocks) or through holes that are more than a wheel diameter (50 centimeters or about 20 inches) in size. Each wheel also has cleats, providing grip for climbing in soft sand and scrambling over rocks.”

None of Curiosity’s six wheels, however, is now in action.  The rover is sleeping out the solar conjunction — that’s when the sun is between Earth and Mars, presenting possible communications problems between Curiosity and her handlers.  A small team at NASA will continue to keep an eye out on the rover each day (or Martian “sol,” as scientists say ).

“A small engineering team will be active every sol during conjunction,” deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada told the Los Angeles Times, “just in case there’s anything to deal with.”

But members of the team who have been busy since the August landing of Curiosity on Mars are taking the time for vacations or to catch up on paperwork.

“This is certainly the longest period with no planned rover activities,” Vasavada said. “The science team is completely free of operations roles.”  He said many on the team, himself included, would be working on “our first set of scientific papers” for the mission.  There will also be some planning sessions for the eventual drive of the rover to Mt. Sharp.

“I have mixed feelings,” he added.  The science team is anxious to continue its work and with slowdowns from recent computer glitches he said it would be “painful to be inactive for another few weeks.”

“But on the other hand,” Vasavada said, “operating this rover is like a hamster wheel that never stops. Being free of that daily stress for a little while will be a guilty pleasure.”

— Amy Hubbard | @AmyTheHub

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17 Responses to A lizard robot for Mars: Scientists dream while Curiosity snoozes

  1. ThinkAboutIt says:

    The blind-sighted scientists didn't anticipate far enough the terrain of Mars to prevent the loss of a very expensive piece of complex equipment – for which we all payed dearly to build, send and lose.


    Just send of a tow rover with a jack and pull the dang thing out of the sand. Geez.

    • What? Spirit had a 90 day mission. It got stuck in the sand after more than 5 **years**

    • Danny says:

      Considering the mission only expected the rover to last for 90 days of activity, and lasted over SIX YEARS, I'd say they did a pretty damn good job.

    • Frank says:

      Haha… Nice idea. Now, how much will the tow rover cost? And what if the tow rover gets stuck? Don't blame the scientists, try doing something for the first time without any previous knowledge.

  2. newkindofscience says:

    Spirit's original mission was only supposed to last 90 days, if anything the fact it kept doing work for close to 5 years is a testament to how well they built the rover to withstand martian terrain

  3. niblick77 says:

    How about a snake robot?

  4. Jon says:

    These types of legs for robots aren't new… Why is this news?

  5. DarnFacts says:

    @ThinkAboutIt, the Mars Rovers were designed for an original mission of 90 days. Spirit lasted SEVEN YEARS and Opp'y is still rolling after NINE YEARS.

  6. WhatSayYou says:

    ThinkAboutIt – your indignation seems to be confused.

    The Spirit rover mission was schedule to last about three months but instead lasted nearly five years – an unquestionable success! The Opportunity rover, with the same expectation of a three month mission is in it’s ninth year and still going strong!

    All of this for less than what it cost for two days of the war in Iraq.

    Curiosity is at the beginning of it’s mission and is doing quite well so far.

    So ThinkAboutIt, maybe you didn’t read the article carefully. It sure doesn’t look like the scientists are the blind-sighted ones.

  7. redmob says:

    Since desert lizards use this form of locomotion successfully, it make sense. Having it act as a scout would be handy especially in risky terrain. they could also be used to inspect each other to assess conditions of equipment.

  8. redmob says:

    how about a sand worm robot.

  9. fatal_error says:

    How about a land shark robot.

  10. Kevin says:

    I'd look forward to seeing a cottage industry of tow-rovers developing on Mars….

  11. Kevin says:

    "Lizard Lick rover-towers"

  12. pem tshering says:

    Brillant idea! but when are they planning

    to put that lizard robot out there!

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