FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 9, 2004
Contact: Kerry T. Nock (626-345-1200)
ALTADENA, CA –
Balloons outfitted with innovative steering devices
and robot probes may be the best way to perform detailed
surveys of Mars in preparation for human exploration.
Dr. Alexey Pankine, a project scientist at the Global
Aerospace Corporation, is presenting an analysis of
balloon applications for Mars exploration at the Space
Technology and Applications International Forum in Albuquerque,
NM on February 10, 2004. His presentation, entitled
Mars Exploration with Directed Aerial Robot Explorers,
is based on research funded by the NASA Institute for
At the center of the presentation are guided balloons
that can float in the Martian atmosphere for months.
Balloons have long been recognized as low-cost observational
platforms and are routinely used in observations of
the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1985, two balloons
were successfully deployed in the atmosphere of Venus
for a short mission. However, what has restrained the
wider use of balloons in planetary exploration was the
inability to control their paths in atmospheric winds.
Attaching an engine to a balloon would convert it into
an airship and likely make it too heavy, too power dependent
and too expensive to send to another planet.
Faced with this problem, Global Aerospace Corporation
has proposed to use an innovative device called the
StratoSail® balloon guidance system that allows
the user to control the path of a planetary balloon.
The device is essentially a wing that hangs on a long
tether (several miles) below the balloon. Relative wind
differences between the two altitudes create a force
that pulls the balloon across the winds. Dr. Pankine
reports that a small, lightweight wing can pull the
balloon with a velocity of about 1 m/s across the Martian
winds. This may not seem much, but applied constantly
(without consuming power) over a 100-day mission, it
would allow for pole-to-pole exploration, as well as
targeted reconnaissance of possible sites for human
exploration on Mars.
Guided balloon platforms would carry high-resolution
cameras and other instruments to study the atmosphere
and surface of Mars. The extended range of guided balloons
can provide opportunities for highly adaptive observations
during science missions. Just like rovers, if an interesting
site is found, a guided balloon platform can be commanded
to observe it. However, the range of the guided balloon
is the entire planet, not the immediate vicinity of
a rover landing site. A guided balloon can deploy a
small rover, miniature geo-chemical laboratory or a
small navigation beacon at the site of interest with
greater precision than if it were delivered from orbit.
Rocket-propelled airplanes are also being considered
as a means of surveying Mars; however, such airplanes
would only make pre-programmed flights over very limited
areas which makes them ill suited to meeting global
or regional reconnaissance objectives of future human
exploration. “The ability of long-duration guided
planetary balloons to alter their flight path in the
atmosphere, to deploy surface probes, and to carry out
detailed reconnaissance make them a very powerful tool
for future Mars exploration,” says Dr. Pankine.
The figure illustrates a guided balloon platform operating