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Le space missions they always give us the impression that the future is now: rovers (and helicopters) exploring Mars, probes returning to earth with asteroid samples, a new space telescope. What else does the space race prepare for us? What could we see in the next few decades?
A small NASA study program aims to see what might be possible. Is called Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), and funds early stage research on futuristic and visionary technological concepts. The goal is to find out what might work, what might not work, and what exciting new ideas researchers might come up with along the way.
During the annual NIAC symposium (held a couple of weeks ago) the researchers presented some visionary concepts that could someday turn the tide of space missions. Here are four really intriguing ones.
For more information on NIAC, please visit www.nasa.gov/niac .
1 Micro swimming robot for ocean worlds.
Ocean worlds, where liquid oceans lie beneath miles of frozen crust, are the most likely places to find life in our solar system. However, accessing and exploring these aquatic environments presents unique challenges. Ethan Schaler, a mechanical robotics engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has a promising idea for exploration: use very small robots. How small? I'm talking about robots a few centimeters large, 3D printed and equipped with sensors and actuators. A spacecraft capable of piercing the ice and deploying these "swarms" of micro-robots could then control them via ultrasound to collect data.
2 Crawling robots with long legs for the Martian caves.
While visionary "swimming" robots might be ideal for some destinations, others require something with a firmer grip. Mark Pavone, associate professor at Stanford University, is developing a potential solution. His concept ReachBot it could quickly crawl through caves, using long, extendable "legs" to grab objects even from a distance, or simply grab on and walk through harsh environments. For example vertical rock walls, or the rocky and irregular bottom of the volcanic caves present on Mars.
3 Lightweight deployable structures that expand into space.
Taking an extra-large spacecraft off Earth takes a lot of planning. Rockets are what they are, it's not easy to carry who knows what around. Sure, multiple launches and assemblies into space have proven effective in the past, but there may be another way. The assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University Zachary Manchester is considering integrating recent advances in mechanical metamaterials into a lightweight design for 'foldable' structures to open into space. Such a structure could be launched inside a single rocket and then deploy autonomously to a final size of up to 10 football fields in length.
4 Sowing asteroids with mushrooms to create space terrain.
If you want space habitat concepts, I have half a dozen to show you. But all the projects have a critical point in common: how will space travelers keep themselves on long journeys? Jane Shevtsova proposes the creation of fertile ground from asteroid dust. I summarize: proposes to disseminate asteroids with mushrooms. Because? The fungi would physically break down the material and chemically degrade any toxic substances. We also do this on Earth: oyster mushrooms, for example, clean up oil-contaminated soil. NIAC research aims to find a way for future space habitats to have large green spaces and robust agricultural systems.
NASA selects NIAC proposals through a peer review process that evaluates innovation and technical feasibility. I have done nothing but call them "visionaries", but certainly not because they are crazy projects.