NASA is spending vast sums of money already. I don’t know how much, because I can’t count that high. In any real sense how does a private person know what 20.2 billion dollars mean, and that is just this year’s budget projection voted on last June by Congress. Sending some astronauts to Mars to bring back some Mars rocks seems to have NASA thinking about going to Congress begging for a trillion dollars. There would not be much of a guarantee of even getting them there, or back, and what could they bring back that was worth much other than glory? That’s a high price for some bragging rights.
There is a much easier way to get some Mars rocks which is vastly cheaper in terms of money, and with very little risk to human life, or Martian life for that matter. That is to retrieve Mars rocks from Antarctica. This has already been done with a few recovered from Africa, and there are already some 10,000 meteorites collected by ANSMET (ANtarctic Search for METeorites). In 2004-2005 the ANSMET 12 member team found 1,230 meteorites. With that proven success it is very likely that a larger effort here on Earth would yield proportionally larger returns. Furthermore, if remote sensing robots were sent out with each human there could be a further amplification of results. Or, the search robots could be monitored from afar such as is now being done with robot airplanes. All of this without much risk, and with a virtual certainty of reasonable results, and a real possibility of spectacular finds. Everything about the Mars mission is likely to fail, and likely to cost astronomical amounts of money that literally must be taken from the mouths of starving people. Before this mission can be completed, at least 2035, there will almost certainly be food shortfalls which would lead to famines, and this mission would aggravate that problem.
An Earth-bound Rover remote reconnaissance vehicle could be manufactured in a few months, and if powered by solar cells it could operate for as much as five months in the Antarctic without any human on-site supervision. This vehicle could be manufactured to look similar to the Mars rovers, but they could built to much more robust specifications than the Mars rovers, because there wouldn’t be the extreme weight restrictions. These vehicles could be operated from the Internet by volunteers in a Wikipedia like fashion which has proven itself to be a very reliable way of doing some kinds of things. In the past a team of only a dozen or so people could stay on location for a few weeks, and work maybe half the time, but using this method would permit many months of continuous, twenty four/seven searching. As the robots find small objects of interest they could have their location identified, and then their finds could be put into Teflon bags, and brought along in a storage bin on the Rover. When larger items were found they could be photographed, and located for later recovery if that was deemed worthwhile. A close range radar, and sonar could be installed for a penetrating view of objects buried in the ice and perhaps a shoveling device for penetrating a short distance into the ice. Once one of these ice rovers was proven successful there could be large numbers of them made, and sent out on these remote quests. If they were cheap enough there could be large numbers of them put out and in that case there would be proportionally larger numbers of findings. If they could be manufactured for a thousand dollars each there could be a thousand of them in operation for a million dollars, and that is only one millionth the cost of the proposed Mars mission. An inflated sphere style rover about half a meter in diameter with a pendulum driven propulsion system could be made very cheaply. One advantage of that method is that the wind would propel the sphere much of the time, and the solar driven battery powered pendulum could be used for more modest traveling. The wind driven rolling action could also power a pendulum driven electric generator for the batteries.
The robotic ice rovers could be and should be relatively autonomous with the capability of recognizing danger, and backing away from it as well as recognizing possible finds and moving into good viewing positions. They should be able to take several photographs with good lighting from several slightly different angles of likely finds so a good quality 3D photo could be viewed by remote humans. They must have reliable radio contact possibilities even if that is only for brief, and intermittent periods which is for maintaining the rover’s location, and showing possible finds. It could have the possibility of using GPS to locate objects of interest, and possibly of fastening radar reflective markers near them into the surface ice.
Another kind of Mars rock-searching rover could be made by using a camera suspended from a balloon. The balloon pulls a weighted package along the surface of a snow covered plain, such as are commonly found in Antarctica. The package is designed to be too heavy to be lifted into the air, but light enough to be dragged along the surface by a moderate wind. This dragged package is used to maintain the balloon at a consistent altitude of 30 meters or so above the surface. The balloon would have a camera which would take a good quality still photograph every ten meters or so of horizontal travel, and transmit the images to a base station. The pictures should be close enough together to give a stereo pair to everything observed. Perhaps a tiny radar could also be attached, rather like the proximity fuse in an anti-aircraft shell. A second radar receiver might be on either the balloon or the drag-line which might help give a better “stereo” radar return from found objects, and help eliminate false echoes. The radar might even find some larger objects a short distance under the surface, and it could give warning of which picture frames require particularly close attention.
The altitude to be flown could be chosen to reliably find stones of the right size, big enough to be interesting, but small enough to be more frequently found. The drag package could carry most of the vehicle’s heavier equipment, such as batteries, long distance radios, and spare helium gas (with a hose to the balloon), all within a smooth tube designed to be smooth, slick, and snag free. The tube could also have variably retractable prongs, or friction wheels, to control velocity. There could be a snag anchor for stopping the device when the wind was wrong. The area surveyed is mostly determined by the starting position, and wind direction. The routes actually traveled would be a bit random, and have to be carefully monitored by an onboard GPS system which would operate, and remember locations even when it wasn’t in contact with its radio base station. Interesting objects when located could be retrieved later by a helicopter using GPS. The entire system could be manufactured as a totally self contained airplane droppable package which would inflate the lifting balloon during the fall, and a collapsing shaft to soften impact with the surface, which falls off after impact.
All of those benefits can be had cheaply, and achieve the desired result of bringing many extraterrestrial rocks to the laboratory, including Mars rocks, and with zero risk of catastrophic failure. The vehicles need not be designed to operate in harsh Antarctic winter conditions, because they would be operating exclusively during the summer months of daylight when the weather is relatively benign. They might be deployed to likely locations from airplanes by parachute or by inflating the balloon on descent, and they could be retrieved at the end of the season to recover their recorded findings if the radio failed, and then refurbished, and upgraded for the next season. Or they could be put on heroic display at the Smithsonian Aviation Museum in Washington D. C. instead of a cenotaph to the lost Martian astronauts.
Another very different method of finding extraterrestrial objects which have fallen onto the Antarctic surface is to take advantage of the flow of ice from the hinterlands to the sea. When these rivers of ice come to the sea they float out over it for a while. At these places where these rivers of ice are floating away from the continent they would be melting on their lower surfaces where the freshwater ice meets the salt water of the ocean. Because the bolides are heavier than the ice upon which they have fallen they will tend to sink through the ice. This will be rather slow sinking, but then they have a very long time to do it. Consequently where the ice is melting near the shore there will be a deposit of those heavier objects which are contained within the ice. That deposit would be made up of scrapings off the surface of the ancient land, and of things which have fallen upon the ice more recently. Some of this ice will have taken tens of thousands of years to reach the sea, and will have been collecting meteorites all that time. The ice will have been melting in the same locations perhaps for millions of years, and the layer of extraterrestrial material from this collection might be quite concentrated ,and very thick. There may be other ancient deposit places that are now uplifted by geological processes above the present sea level where vast amounts of extraterrestrial stuff could now be easily mined. The borders of ancient arctic continents would be prime locations for these finds, and one advantage for a geologist is that they would be readily dated into groups. Who knows … these extraterrestrial collections might be right on the surface, and easy to find if one were to look in the right places.