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Robotic bees on Mars? NASA's newest plan for the Red Planet

Two teams of NASA researchers are working on designing a robotic bee to replace modern rovers on Mars.

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The initiative is part of the "Marsbee" project, according to an announcement last week.

The space agency has previously sent two rovers to Mars – named Spirit and Opportunity. Both rovers were launched in 2003 and landed on Mars in 2004.

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Although NASA initially intended for the rovers to be active for just 90 days after landing, both significantly outlived that time frame. Spirit remained active, relaying data back to earth, until 2010. The second rover, Opportunity, is still active, more than 14 years after landing on the planet.

While the Rovers – which cost hundreds of millions to build, launch, land and control – have contributed invaluable scientific knowledge to researchers back on Earth, they are slow moving and bulky. Scientists behind the Marsbee plan say the robotic bees will be an upgrade and also help cut costs.

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"The Marsbee offers many benefits over traditional aerospace systems. The smaller volume, designed for the interplanetary spacecraft payload configuration, provides much more flexibility," Chang-kwon Kang, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville wrote in a NASA blog post.

"Also, the Marsbee inherently offers more robustness to individual system failures. Because of its relatively small size and the small volume of airspace needed to test the system, it can be validated in a variety of accessible testing facilities,” he added.

A rover will still be used as a base for the robotic bees, but it will remain mainly stationary as the flying machines travel around Mars, mapping its surface and collecting samples of the planet's thin air. When the bots need to recharge, they will return to the rover.

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One of the project’s main goals is to find methane gas, which could be a sign of life on Mars, according to The Guardian.

The plan is actually quite feasible due to the planet's relatively low gravitational pull, meaning Marsbees will have an easier time flying around the Martian surface.

The robots are still in their early stages of development, with Japanese scientist designing the Marsbees and a team at the University of Alabama working on numerical models for the project. NASA described the flying machines as being the size of a bumblebee with cicada-sized wings.

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"Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere," Kang explained.

According to Live Science, the largest species of bumblebee can grow up to 1.6 inches. A cicada's wings can vary from 1.2 inches to more than twice that length.

The idea for the flying bees to explore Mars came as a proposal submitted to NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program. It was one of 25 shortlisted ideas. Other innovative solutions included balloon platforms to navigate extreme terrain and shape-shifting robots that can roll up into balls to explore.

Read the NASA announcement at nasa.gov.

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