The Mars rover, that self-propelled, solar powered box o' sensors 'n stuff that slowly inches along the surface (and battles the fierce environment) of the red planet may be a mainstay of space exploration, but it's certainly not the only way to get the job done. For instance, the kids at Draper Labs -- last seen in this space with their injectable nanosensor -- are in the process of developing vehicles that would (literally) leave traditional rovers in the dust. The Draper Hopper prototype is designed with a ducted fan propulsion system that uses compressed nitrogen gas to cover twenty-five miles in a few days or, at best, a few hours. By way of comparison, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity craft have covered roughly twenty miles since hitting the Martian surface in early 2004. Of course, the hoppers will have to bring fuel with them, so their lifespans will be cut drastically shorter than their wheel-based contemporaries, but we've always believed more autonomous vehicles should "live fast / die young," like Sid Vicious or James Dean. With any luck, we should see test flights by January 2011.

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