Meet the Very First Rover to Land on Mars

It didn't get anywhere, but the Soviets put a robotic rover on Mars in 1971

2 min read
Meet the Very First Rover to Land on Mars

Before Curiosity, before Opportunity, before Spirit, and before Sojourner, the very first robot to land on Mars was this little guy, way back in December of 1971. Called PrOP-M, the rover was part of the Soviet Union's Mars-3 mission, which had the potential to deploy the first ever mobile scientific instruments onto the Martian surface.

PROP-M stands for Device Evaluation Terrain - Mars: the acronym, apparently, only works in the original Russian. The robot weighed 4.5 kilos and was just a little bit smaller than a breadbox at 215 x 160 x 60 mm. It was packing a dynamic penetrometer and a radiation densitometer intended to measure soil density, and was tethered to the Mars-3 lander by a power and data cable.

Mars-3 lander image by Vadim Trochinski. PROP-M rover visible on top.


The way that PROP-M was intended to work was that after landing, a signal from Earth would instruct the Mars-3 lander to place the rover on the surface with a robotic arm, like this:


And here's a picture of the arm in action on a mock-up:


Once the rover was on the ground, it moved using two rotating skis or skids. It was autonomous (a necessity because of the time delay between Earth and Mars), and used two very simple impact bars on the front to detect obstacles. If it ran into something, it would back up and turn itself. Every 1.5 meters, the rover was supposed to stop and take a measurement, and the max range (limited by the tether) was 15 meters. The idea was that the rover would wander around in front of the lander, in view of the Mars-3's cameras, sending back measurements:

Simple, adaptable, and robust.

Sadly, PROP-M never got a chance to do any exploring. The Mars-3 lander separated from its spacecraft on December 2, 1971, and entered the Martian atmosphere. After aerobraking with a heat shield, the lander deployed a parachute to slow itself down, and then when within range of the ground fired its retrorockets and made a successful landing on the surface, impacting the ground at about 20 meters per second and cushioning itself with shock-absorbing foam. Four petals on top of the capsule opened and the lander began to transmit data 90 seconds after landing, but all contact was lost just 20 seconds later, before the PROP-M rover had a chance to deploy.

It's thought that maybe the lander was damaged on descent by a massive dust storm that was raging on Mars at the time, but it's also possible that the orbiter (which was acting as a communications relay) was the problem. Or there's always the angry Martians hypothesis. We'll never know exactly what happens, at least not until one of the current rovers makes it to the Mars-3 landing site to check things out, that is.

If you want to see a PROP-M rover for yourself, there's one on display at a museum in St. Petersberg.

Via [ Cybernetic Zoo ] and [ NASA ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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