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Hopper vehicle could explore Mars by jumping

Martian hopscotch, anyone? Bouncing vehicles proposed by Draper Laboratory could cover dozens of miles on Mars with a few leaps.

Lunar hopscotch: An artist's conception of the vehicle on the moon. Draper

While NASA prepares its next Martian rover to launch in 2011, other minds on Earth are developing an alternative means to explore the Red Planet. Instead of roving, why not hop around Mars and cover a lot more ground?

Draper Laboratory is developing a concept vehicle that would land on the Martian surface and then propulsively leap to interesting spots, traveling miles with each hop.

In a recent release, Draper says that two hopper vehicles could cover a total of 25 miles on Mars in only a few hours or days. As of September 8, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers have covered 19.14 miles altogether since they began exploring Mars in early 2004. Spirit is now stuck in soft sand and Opportunity has a top speed of 2 inches per second.

Researchers check a hopper prototype. Draper

Draper is working with researchers at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics on the Terrestrial Autonomous Lunar Reduced Gravity System (TALARIS), a 3-foot-wide testbed that uses a ducted fan propulsion system for lift and a compressed nitrogen gas system for maneuvering. While a hopping vehicle could travel miles with each leap, it would need a fuel supply instead of the solar power that runs the NASA rovers.

Draper has been working on several lander systems with NASA, such as ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology), but it is funding the hopper program itself. The agency, though, is curious about the concept.

"As we have been maturing the technology, interest from NASA has ranged from demonstrations and data requests to teaming on science mission proposals with Draper's role commensurate with the technology," Seamus Tuohy, director of space systems at Draper, said in an interview.

Draper hopes to add capabilities such as precision landing, hazard avoidance, and more complex maneuvering to the hopper prototype, and perform full test flights in January 2011.

Draper and MIT are part of Next Giant Leap, a team vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition to send the first privately funded robot to the moon, have it travel 500 meters (0.31 miles) and send video, images, and data back to Earth.

TALARIS is an outgrowth of their collaboration, and could be used on the moon as well as Mars, asteroids, or any heavenly body with enough gravity for hopping. If it flies, I'd love to hop over traffic jams on Earth with it.