The instruments would be suspended within the centre of the structure to protect them from damage – cushioned from the impact of landing and locomotion. But they would have to be very different to the sort of boxy equipment carried by existing rovers, capable of being tumbled around and with any arms or probes, safely tucked away. There could even be several of these rovers, tumbling across an alien world and communicating with each other like a swarm of bees.
The rover Sunspiral and Agogino are currently putting their minds to is Super Ball Bot, which they are developing as a concept mission to explore Saturn’s moon Titan. With its petrochemical atmosphere and hydrocarbon lakes, Titan is a fascinating destination and one of the potential candidates in the Solar System for primitive life. The European Space Agency’s Huygens probe parachuted down onto Titan’s surface in 2005 but the cookie-shaped spacecraft had no ability to move around and only managed to return data for around 90 minutes in the hostile environment.
Something like Super Ball Bot would be ideal to survive a descent through the thick atmosphere and cope with movement on the moon’s surface – which includes solid ground, slush and sea. “Titan is one of the most interesting moons,” says Agogino. “We can’t see the surface [from space] and the atmosphere is full of clouds. We really need something robust, or five or six things that are robust, to get the science done.”
So will any of this actually happen or is it just another “crazy” idea?
“Absolutely,” insists Sunspiral. “I’ve been around the robotics industry long enough to know that you just have to throw yourself at a vision and make progress and be successful and anything’s possible. It’s just like Silicon Valley and all the start-ups here. You’ve got to start with a couple of kids in a garage and eventually you have your Google.”
And, I suggest, they are both like those kids in the garage? “Exactly,” says Agogino as they go back to playing with their toy.