By JON M. CHANG
Snakes are crafty animals. They can be found slithering in the desert, swimming in the ocean and even flying in the air. But how would they deal with another planet altogether?
Researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology aren't planning to launch the legless reptiles on a spaceship, but they are using them as inspiration for a new type of Mars exploration robot. Aksel Transeth, a senior research scientist at SINTEF, along with some of his colleagues, are conducting a feasibility study for the European Space Agency, examining how a snake robot would fare on the red planet.
"We started the study back in June and will finish sometime in December," Transeth told ABC News. The study is more like a written report than it is a series of experiments, he said. However, the ideas on paper could make its way into a prototype within a few months.
Transeth primarily researches how to make snake robots more efficient on Earth in search and rescue missions. "Biological snakes can climb rocks and slide through small holes," he said. "Imagine if you could have a snake trained to find people in fallen down buildings."
It's because of a snake's ability to get past almost any type of obstacle that makes it useful. Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, said that there are many places that current rovers can't reach. "The snake robot could travel to cliffs and look underneath overhangs," he said. "It could find a crevasse, crawl down it and extract a sample, which itself could tell us how Mars evolved as a planet."
But Choset, a snake robot researcher himself, said that getting to that stage is still a long ways away. "There are a lot of challenges that we still have to address," he said. "We're still having a hard time figuring out how to make these robots work in bumpy and highly confined spaces here on Earth."
At this point in the feasibility study, many aspects of the snake robot are still up in the air. Mars is colder and has less gravity than Earth, both of which could impact how the robot behaves. But one thing that Transeth is almost certain about is that the Mars snake would be a companion and not a robot left to explore the planet solo.
"It takes energy to get from point A to point B," said Transeth. "I think a tethered solution might work better so it doesn't need its own power supply. But this is just speculation."
The ESA plans to send its own rover, ExoMars, in 2016 and 2018. NASA, while still working with Curiosity, is also planning to send another rover to Mars in 2020.
While Choset is cautiously optimistic about how a snake robot would fare on Mars, he said that there is plenty left for it to do on Earth. "Other applications like archaeology and surgery ... these applications are less out of this world than Mars," he said. "I wish NASA were sending snake robots to Mars though!"