NASA missions have always made us feel like we’re already living in the future: rovers exploring Mars with the latest tools, a spacecraft venturing home with an asteroid sample, and an intricate space telescope surveying the primordial universe. . but, this is not every thing. A small NASA program aims to see what might be possible in the future.
NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, funds early-stage research on future technology concepts. The goal is to find what might work, what might not work, and exciting new ideas that researchers can come up with along the way. So let’s see some innovations in development for future explorations.
Ocean worlds, where liquid oceans lie beneath miles of frozen crust, are some of the most likely places in our solar system to host life — a tempting prospect for scientists. Accessing and exploring these aquatic environments presents unique challenges. Ethan Schaller, a robotic mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is looking at a promising idea for exploration: using centimeter-scale 3D-printed robots equipped with sensors and actuators.
Marco Pavon, an assistant professor at Stanford University, is developing another interesting solution, ReachBot, in which the robot can crawl quickly through caves, using extendable arms to grab over long distances. Its various characteristics allow small and light robots to move in challenging environments, such as vertical rock walls or the rocky and uneven floors of caves on Mars.
Sending very large spacecraft from Earth is complex and expensive. Multiple launches and assemblies in space have proven effective in the past, but there may be another way. Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Zachary Manchester is evaluating ways to incorporate recent advances in mechanical metamaterials into a lightweight, deployable frame design. Such a structure could be launched inside a single rocket and then independently deployed to a final size of 10 football fields.
All space habitat projects face a common challenge that requires innovative thinking: How can space travelers sustain themselves on long flights? Gene Shevtsov, working with Trans Astronautica Corporation, advances the creation of terrain from carbon-rich asteroid material. Fungi can physically break down a substance and chemically degrade any toxic substance. Similar processes occur on Earth, such as oyster mushrooms cleaning oil-contaminated soil. NIAC’s research aims to find a way for future space habitats to have large green space and robust farming systems.
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