In the face of budget cuts (we're all familiar with that), NASA is having to think outside the box more than usual. The eventual human exploration of Mars has been a cherished goal of NASA since the Apollo days. However, in order to pave the way, they're soliciting ideas from across the globe on how to perform low cost but powerful robotic explorations.
Full story here.
If it were up to me, the best way to explore another planet is not with one big, powerful, expensive rover, but with dozens or hundreds of tiny, cheap mini rovers. These devices would be like mechanical cockroaches: small, light, and skittering around on little legs for enhanced maneuverability. Each would have a small solar cell and battery for power, an array of sensors, and a radio.
The radios on each 'cockroach' would form a wireless network between them, ultimately reaching back to the landing site. Each cockroach would never have enough power to communicate with earth, so the lander would contain the radio for that. Most of the needed computing power and storage would be kept in the lander as well, so that each cockroach wouldn't need very much. They would simply skitter around collecting data, which would be stored, analyzed, and transmitted to earth by the lander. The lander could be programmed to override the autonomous nature of the cockroaches if need be: for example, scientists might want to direct a few cockroaches over to an interesting site for a closer look.
If cheap, small, and light enough, hundreds of cockroaches could theoretically be deployed. If these could communicate with each other in addition to the lander, they would know to stay out of each other's way and not visit the same area twice. If the radio range was long enough, say 10km, they could survey a vast area. Their small size would allow them to explore rocks and soils from very close up.
There are some drawbacks. The lander would be straightforward enough, but the cockroaches might be tough to design. They would have to be small, but have a powerful sensor array, a good radio, and be very durable. Legs would be preferable to wheels because there is less chance of getting stuck. Legs would also allow the cockroach to climb if need be. The cockroaches would have to be highly autonomous, so that they could slip into a rock crack, take data, and figure out how to escape again.
These cockroaches would not be cheap to develop. However, once designed, they could probably be built and deployed for not much money. Eventually, swarms of them would be able to explore the red planet from pole to pole, taking in an unprecedented amount of data.
These cockroaches would also be very useful for military and disaster relief applications. Eventually, modified units might be used in homes for cleaning! It is impossible to predict all the possible spin-offs of this technology.
That's my own opinion. What's yours?