FEATURE: NASA’S WEIRD INVESTMENTS IN THE FUTURE OF SPACE TRAVEL

Article Source: IMehcE

Could robotic bees help colonise Mars? NASA thinks so, and has made a sizeable investment in bringing this sci-fi vision to reality.

It’s one of 25 similar awards that the US space agency made this week in early-stage technologies for space exploration. Here, we run through some of the stranger engineering investments that could help take humanity back to the stars.

Marsbee

Developed by Chang-kwon Kang at the University of Alabama, the Marsbee is a bumblebee-sized robot with flapping wings, designed to explore Mars in a swarm. A rover will act as a mobile charging station, and the ‘bees’ will be able to hover while using less energy thanks to the low gravity.

Biobot

Astronauts wear bulky spacesuits that keep them alive by giving them oxygen, keeping them warm, and protecting them from the vacuum of space. But, these space suits also limit the amount of time they can spend on the surface of foreign planets to short jaunts, or EVAs. Biobot aims to provide a solution – it’s a mobile robot that will contain all an astronaut’s life support systems, but with greater capacity, allowing them to stay out on the surface for longer. Astronauts will be tethered to it with an ‘umbilical cord’ that will bring them oxygen and carry away carbon dioxide.

SPARROW

We’re yet to explore any icy, ocean worlds, but when we do traditional rovers aren’t going to cut it. SPARROW, which stands for ‘Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds,’ is a spherical robot designed to hop around the surface like a bouncy ball.

LEAVES

The space exploration industry loves a catchy acronym, and LEAVES is no exception. Lofted Environmental and Atmospheric Venus Sensors are lightweight, and designed to drift slowly down through the planet’s atmosphere, taking measurements and collecting data on the way.

NIMPH

Over the next ten years, NASA wants to collect samples from other planets in the solar system and bring them back to earth for further analysis. The problem is fuel for the return trip – if you have to burn more than a kilo of fuel to get a kilo of fuel into space, you soon get exponential growth in the amount required. One potential solution is missions that can make their own return fuel, and that’s the goal of NIMPH, or Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester. It will produce liquid oxygen and hydrogen, allowing missions to refuel at their destinations and thereby drastically reducing the cost.

Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms

To see further into the universe, we need bigger telescopes, and ideally we need them to be in orbit, so they don’t get blinded by the lights of Earth. The James Webb Space Telescope is one example, due to go up this year, but the methods used to build it won’t work for much bigger telescopes. Instead, Dmitry Savransky at Cornell University proposes sending up a number of smaller telescopes. Each would be an individual spacecraft with a 30-metre mirror on top, and they could then join together to form a vast telescope.

BALLET: BALloon Locomotion for Extreme Terrain

Hari Nayar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory wants to build a giant walking balloon (pictured) to help navigate extreme terrain. His strange device, pictured above, would create a flat platform on rocky terrain with a balloon anchored to the surface by six suspended feet.


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