Blanket-Like “Flat Landers” Could Be the Future of Planetary Exploration

By Flashstyle87 (Google Sketch 3D image) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Flashstyle87 (Google Sketch 3D image) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the R&D teams at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is developing blanket-size fleets of “flat landers” that could be sent to other planets en masse to do exploration work.

These have been specially designed to enable a less expensive and more extensive way of undertaking planetary explorations. The Curiosity rover is, to date, the world’s most successful planetary exploration effort. However, it entailed billions of dollars to achieve and a multitude of risks to get through. This new technology takes a radically different approach in doing exploration work on the surface of celestial bodies.

Instead of a risky one-shot attempt to land a rover, dozens of “flat landers” can be sent to the surface of a planet or satellite. In the 2014 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts symposium at at Stanford University, Dr. Hamid Hemmati of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said that this approach “will enable NASA to go places that they don’t dare to go right now.” Dr. Hemmati adds that because of their flat design, the “flat landers” can be stacked and distributed over a wide range of areas instead of landing in just one area and placing all bets on a one-shot landing.

The development of the flat lander concept started last year when Dr. Hamid Hemmati and his team received a $100,00 grant from NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

So why do “flat Landers” make sense? The advantages and features enumerated below explain how this technology is a good option for exploring alien worlds in the future.

1. Mass Deployment and Reduced Landing Failure

Significantly reducing the risks of failing to land a successful exploration unit on the surface of a celestial body is one of the main thrusts of developing the flat lander technology. Since there will be dozens of them sent to the surface of a planet or its satellite, it will be acceptable if not all of them make it.

Dr. Hemmati says the the loss of a few landers in a specific mission will not be big blow on the entire mission. “They don’t all have to survive; we have dozens of them,” he adds. The Technical Group Supervisor at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory believes that “even if half of them make it, it’s still good, we’ll be happy.”

The flexibility and virtually indestructible design of the landers are made possible by advances in thin, flexible electronics. The cameras, environmental monitoring paraphernalia, spectrometers, and other exploration gear will be fitted into a thin and light solar-powered sheet that will not break upon impact.

2. Passive Landing

The relatively thin landers are designed to be capable of passive landing. They don’t need rockets, boosters, propellers, or other mechanisms to prevent gravitational pull from accelerating their dropping speed and creating a strong impact upon landing. They can be simply dropped like blankets or carpets being airdropped. Their aerodynamic design will help them land safely.

3. Cheaper Cost

Because these landers no longer need expensive landing systems like the “sky crane” responsible for dropping down the Curiosity rover, they will be cheaper to produce. Moreover, since many of them can be deployed, the chances of a failure is dramatically lessened. They potentially translate to lower costs of space missions.

By Hugoviv (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hugoviv (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

4.  Stationary Deployment but with Some Mobility Possible

The landers are primarily intended to be stationary, obtaining information from the surface and environment without moving to different locations. However, developers are not closing the possibility of enabling mobility by installing tiny legs or by making the landers roll up (probably through light artificial muscles) to allow the wind to move the landers around.

5. Long-Distance Power Beaming

The “flat landers” are mainly built to harness solar energy for power. However, for destinations that are far from the sun, Dr. Hemmati says that the idea of long-distance power beaming is feasible. The technology to enable power beaming from a distance is not that remotely possible. In fact, it has already been demonstrated on Earth. American researchers have already been working on tactical applications for doing laser power beaming to remote areas on Earth.

By NASA / JHU/APL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA / JHU/APL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These thin landers are envisioned to improve the exploration of the surfaces of planets, satellites, and other celestial bodies. They still require further R&D work but the promise is certainly there. The idea is definitely sound and, if implemented, would likely expedite the search for life or habitable environments outside of Earth.