Roving soft-robots invade NASA's future technologies shortlist

One NIAC concept would see a squid-like rover sent to explore the oceans of Europa(Credit: NASA/Cornell University/NSF)

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts NIAC program has announced 15 phase I winners in its quest to make science fiction science fact. The aim of the program is to encourage the innovation of ideas with the potential to transform future aerospace and exploration operations, but more importantly, it grants us a tantalizing and often fantastical glimpse of what the future may hold.

In the past, NIAC has given rise to a fascinating blend of concepts, from the mundane to the overtly ambitious. In recent years it has filled our heads with ideas of futuristic aerospace concepts and submarines on Titan. The 15 successful 2015 phase I recipients haven't failed to add a sense of wonder to proceedings.

Each of the newly-funded projects are intriguing in their own way, but a few in particular catch the eye thanks either to the ambitious nature of the concept, or the potential scientific leap forward that they may represent.

A robotic squid on Europa

Arguably the most outlandish entry this year was made by Mason Peck and Robert Shepherd of Cornell University. Peck suggests using a soft-robotic rover (definitely a robo-squid) to explore the depths of the Jovian moon Europa. As the submersible probe glides through the vast ocean locked within the moon's icy crust, it would harvest energy from locally changing magnetic fields via a series of tentacle-like appendages, which may also serve as a form of biomimetic propulsion.

This novel approach to energy harvesting could potentially allow for long-term exploration of locales where solar power is rendered an unappealing option, and according to Peck may even present an alternative to nuclear power. If such a concept became a reality, it would unquestionably revolutionize the term "rover."

Melting asteroids for water

Another submission by Joel Sercel of ICS Associates Inc. seeks to make use of a technique known as Optical Mining to extract water from asteroids. The Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies (APIS) project would target near-Earth asteroids, using concentrated beams of sunlight to melt frozen ice, while the target is held within an inflatable containment bag similar to that proposed for use in NASA's future Asteroid Redirect Mission.

After several months of collection, during which time APIS will harvest an estimated 100 tonnes (110 tons) of water stored as solid ice, the probe would use solar thermal propulsion to establish a Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit. Once in this orbit, the probe could rendezvous with another spacecraft, that would convert the water into a valuable resource, such as an element for rocket fuel, drinking water, oxygen, or even a form of radiation shielding.

High-flying gliders

An Earthbound concept from William Engblom of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University would make use of two glider-like unmanned atmospheric satellites to provide a multi-use sub-orbital platform. The two satellites would be positioned at different heights, and tethered via an ultra-strong cable.

According to Engblom, the aircraft would extract energy for subsystems from a solar film and possibly a wind turbine, and would be capable of maintaining station in the stratosphere at heights of around 60,000 ft (18,288 m) for years before descending. Such a platform has obvious surveillance capabilities, but could also be used to extend communications availability at relatively low costs.

Each of the successful phase I concepts have been awarded a grant of US$100,000, which will allow for nine months of definition and analysis study of their concepts. At the end of this period, feasibility studies will be undertaken, the completion of which will qualify projects to apply for phase 2 NIAC funding worth up to $200,000.

Source: NASA

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