NIAC Fellow: David Wettergreen, Carnegie Mellon University

Concept: Nomadic Exploration: Following routes of solar sustenance and temperate climate

› Video of the concept in action
› Concept Diagram

Persistent sunlight and moderate temperatures are available at the right place and time and by discovering a continuous path in space and time continuous nomadic exploration is possible. The discovery of temperate, sun-lit routes enables a fundamentally improved means of exploring a planetary body: long-term, non-stop surface missions. Nomadic rovers are cold-blooded, energy gathering, resource-aware agents that will pioneer and exploit routes of continual light and temperate climate. Once established, such routes will be the bases for science, human presence, circumferential utilities on favored features, and planetary circumnavigators akin to Magellan.

Conceptual existence of circumnavigation routes was speculated in the proposing team’s Phase I NIAC research, but at that time terrain model resolution was too low to enable accurate route-finding, and fidelity of terrain knowledge was too low for validation of route existence. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and Messenger missions have changed that fact: detailed surface maps now exist for the Moon, Mars, Mercury, and some asteroids, and the time is right for a great leap of viability for the visionary concept of Nomadic Exploration.

The proposed research will discover and characterize the first Nomadic Routes to encircle planets, dwell at peaks, and circumnavigate asteroids. Research thrusts in sensing and planning technologies for rover energetics, speed, and autonomy will make the great leaps necessary for Nomadic expeditions like equatorial circumnavigation. Magellan Routes on the Moon will be discovered by applying resource-aware planning methodology to terrain, solar, and thermal data acquired in recent missions. These concepts will be extended to asteroids with slow orbital periods that might allow for sun following in very low gravity and for seasonal polar missions to Mars. Demonstration of critical concepts will occur in simulated and physical test-beds tuned to emulate the parameters of terrain, illumination, temperature and gravity essential for these missions.