Strategies for Deploying a Sensor Network to Explore Planetary Lava Tubes

Sensors (Basel). 2021 Sep 16;21(18):6203. doi: 10.3390/s21186203.


Recently discovered pits on the surface of the Moon and Mars are theorized to be remnants of lava tubes, and their interior may be in pristine condition. Current landers and rovers are unable to access these areas of high interest. However, multiple small, low-cost robots that can utilize unconventional mobility through ballistic hopping can work as a team to explore these environments. In this work, we propose strategies for exploring these newly discovered Lunar and Martian pits with the help of a mother-daughter architecture for exploration. In this architecture, a highly capable rover or lander would tactically deploy several spherical robots (SphereX) that would hop into the rugged pit environments without risking the rover or lander. The SphereX robots would operate autonomously and perform science tasks, such as getting inside the pit entrance, obtaining high-resolution images, and generating 3D maps of the environment. The SphereX robot utilizes the rover or lander's resources, including the power to recharge and a long-distance communication link to Earth. Multiple SphereX robots would be placed along the theorized caves/lava tube to maintain a direct line-of-sight connection link from the rover/lander to the team of robots inside. This direct line-of-sight connection link can be used for multi-hop communication and wireless power transfer to sustain the exploration mission for longer durations and even lay a foundation for future high-risk missions.

Keywords: cave exploration; mapping; navigation; sensor network.