|Image credit: JPL/NASA.|
According to his 1989 memoir Journey into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration, Murray saw this as an opportunity. He quickly assembled a group of six engineers to propose planetary missions that he could pitch to the journalists and, through them, to U.S. taxpayers.
The missions, which Murray dubbed "Purple Pigeons," were intended to include both "high science content" and "excitement and drama [that would] garner public support." They were called Purple Pigeons to differentiate them from "Gray Mice," unexciting and timid missions which Murray felt would help to ensure that JPL had no future in the space exploration business. By August 1976, the Purple Pigeons flock included a solar sail mission to Halley's Comet, a Mars Surface Sample Return (MSSR), a Venus radar mapper, a Saturn/Titan orbiter/lander, a Ganymede lander, an asteroid tour, and an automated lunar base.
|Bruce Murray, JPL director from April 1976 until June 1982. Image creditI JPL/Caltech.|
The image at the top of this post shows a somewhat different (probably later) multi-rover mission design. Its four six-wheel, multi-cab rovers (two of which are operating out of view over the horizon) rely on a single Viking orbiter-type spacecraft to relay radio signals to and from Earth. In principle, however, it is identical to the early multi-rover mission design described in this post.
Most MSSR plans of the 1970s assumed a "grab" sample; that is, that the stationary MSSR lander would return to Earth a sample of whatever rocks and soil happened to be within reach of its robotic sample scoop. The report suggested that the rovers of the multi-rover mission might enhance a follow-on MSSR mission by collecting and storing samples as they roved across the planet. After the MSSR lander arrived on Mars, the rovers would rendezvous with it and hand over their samples for return to Earth. The report contended that its multi-rover/MSSR strategy would be "an enormous advance over even multiple grab samples" collected by MSSR landers at widely scattered sites.
At the time the Purple Pigeons team proposed the multi-rover mission, NASA intended to launch all payloads, including interplanetary spacecraft, on board reusable Space Shuttles. The Shuttle orbiter would be able to climb no higher than about 500 kilometers, so launching payloads to higher Earth orbits or interplanetary destinations would demand an upper stage. The powerful liquid-propellant Centaur upper stage would not be ready in time for the opening of the Mars multi-rover launch window, which spanned from 11 December 1983 to 20 January 1984, so JPL tapped a three-stage solid-propellant Interim Upper Stage (IUS) to push its Purple Pigeon out of Earth orbit toward Mars.
After an Earth-Mars cruise lasting about nine months, the twin multi-rover spacecraft would arrive at Mars a week or two apart between 16 September and 27 October 1984. They would each fire their main engines to slow down so that Mars gravity could capture them into an elliptical orbit with a periapsis (low point) of 500 kilometers, a five-day period, and an inclination of 35° relative to the martian equator.
The multi-rover landers would then separate and each fire a solid-propellant de-orbit rocket at the apoapsis (high point) of its orbit to begin descent to the surface. Landing sites between 50° north latitude and the south pole would in theory be accessible, though the need for a direct Earth-to-rover radio link would in practice prevent landings below 55° south.
The landers would each be encased within an aeroshell with a heat shield for protection during the fiery descent through the martian atmosphere. The aeroshell would have the same 3.5-meter diameter as its Viking predecessor, though its afterbody would be modified to make room for the large cooling vanes of the twin rovers' electricity-producing Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs).
|JPL's dual rovers packed inside their modified Viking-type aeroshell. Image credit: JPL.|
The multi-rover lander, which would serve no purpose beyond rover delivery, would constitute a radical departure from the triangular Viking lander design, though it would use Viking technology where possible to save development costs. It would comprise a rectangular frame to which would be attached three uprated Viking-type terminal descent engines, two spherical propellant tanks, and three beefed-up Viking-type landing legs.
|Multi-rover lander. Image credit: JPL.|
JPL envisioned that its four-wheeled rovers would each deploy a one-meter-tall boom holding a still-image camera, a floodlight, a strobe light, a weather station, and a pointable horn-shaped radio antenna. The camera/antenna boom, the tallest part of the rover, would stand about two meters above the surface. Controllers on Earth would then put the rovers through an initial checkout lasting at least two weeks. The checkout would culminate in slow "manual" (Earth-controlled) and faster semi-autonomous (Earth-directed but rover-controlled) traverses.
|JPL's nuclear-powered rover viewed from above (top) and from the side. Image credit: JPL.|
The rover mobility system would include one electric drive motor per wheel, eight proximity sensors for obstacle detection, inclinometers to monitor rover tilt, motor temperature sensors to judge wheel traction, a gyrocompass/odometer, a laser rangefinder with a 30-meter range, and an "8-bit word, 16k active, 64k bulk, floating point arithmetic and 16-bit accuracy" computer. The JPL engineers judged that their rovers would be capable of moving at up to 50 meters per hour over terrain similar to that seen at the Viking 1 landing site.
|Dusk at the Viking 1 landing site in Chryse Planitia. Image credit: NASA.|
In order to avoid "an overabundance of data from a single track," the rovers would travel slightly different routes and rendezvous at the end of each leg of their traverse. They would, however, travel close enough together that each could aid the other in the event of trouble. If one rover became stuck in loose dirt, for example, its companion could use its articulated arm to place rocks under its wheels to improve traction. If one rover of a pair failed, the report maintained, the other would continue to yield "good, solid science."
The rovers would be designed to operate for at least one martian year (about two Earth years) to help ensure that at least one of the four could successfully rendezvous with the follow-on MSSR mission, which would leave Earth in 1986. Estimates of rover traverse distances in 1970s and 1980s studies were typically highly optimistic, and the multi-rover mission was no exception: each of the mission's four rovers was expected to travel up to 1000 kilometers. The JPL engineers concluded their report by calling for new technology development to ensure that adequate power and mobility systems would become available by the time their Purple Pigeon was due to fly.
Journey into Space: The First Thirty Years of Space Exploration, Bruce Murray, W. W. Norton & Co., 1989.
Feasibility of a Mars Multi-Rover Mission, JPL 760-160, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 28 February 1977.
Triple-Flyby: Venus-Mars-Venus Piloted Missions in the Late 1970s/Early 1980s (1967)
Prelude to Mars Sample Return: The Mars 1984 Mission (1977)
Making Propellants from Martian Air (1978)