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Mobile Platform for Planetary Exploration

The requirements for performance by planetary exploration missions are increasing. Landing at a single location to take data is no longer sufficient. Due to the increasing cost, the missions that provide mobile platforms that can acquire data at displaced locations are becoming more attractive. Landers have also had limited range due to power limitations, limited lifetime of subsystems and the inability to negotiate rough terrain. USRA engineers at the Center for Space Nuclear Research have designed an instrumented platform that can acquire detailed data at hundreds of locations during its lifetime - a Mars Hopper. The Mars Hopper concept utilizes energy from radioisotopic decay in a manner different from any existing radioisotopic power sources - as a thermal capacitor. By accumulating the heat from radioisotopic decay for long periods, the power of the source can be dramatically increased for short periods. Thus, a radioisotopic thermal rocket (RTR) is possible. The platform will be able to "hop" from one location to the next every 5-7 days with a separation of 5-10 km per hop. Each platform will weigh around 50 kgs unfueled which is the condition at deployment. Consequently, several platforms may be deployed on a single launch from Earth. With a lifetime estimated at 5-7 years, the entire surface of Mars can be mapped in detail by a couple dozen platforms. In addition, Hoppers can collect samples form all over the Mars surface and deliver them to central location for pick up by a future Mars Sample Return mission.