Roving soft-robots invade NASA's future technologies shortlist

Roving soft-robots invade NASA...
One NIAC concept would see a squid-like rover sent to explore the oceans of Europa
One NIAC concept would see a squid-like rover sent to explore the oceans of Europa
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One NIAC concept would see a squid-like rover sent to explore the oceans of Europa
One NIAC concept would see a squid-like rover sent to explore the oceans of Europa

The NASA InnovativeAdvanced Concepts NIAC program has announced 15 phase I winners inits quest to make science fiction science fact. The aim of theprogram is to encourage the innovation of ideas with the potential totransform future aerospace and exploration operations, but moreimportantly, it grants us a tantalizing and often fantastical glimpseof what the future may hold.

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

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

A robotic squid on Europa

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

This novel approach toenergy harvesting could potentially allow for long-term explorationof locales where solar power is rendered an unappealing option, andaccording to Peck may even present an alternative to nuclear power.If such a concept became a reality, it would unquestionablyrevolutionize the term "rover."

Melting asteroids for water

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

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

High-flying gliders

An Earthbound conceptfrom William Engblom of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Universitywould make use of two glider-like unmanned atmospheric satellites toprovide a multi-use sub-orbital platform. The two satellites would bepositioned at different heights, and tethered via an ultra-strongcable.

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

Each of the successfulphase I concepts have been awarded a grant of US$100,000, which willallow for nine months of definition and analysis study of theirconcepts. At the end of this period, feasibility studies will beundertaken, the completion of which will qualify projects to applyfor phase 2 NIAC funding worth up to $200,000.

Source: NASA

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