Shape-Shifting Robots and Laser-Powered Spacecraft Highlight NASA's Innovative Advanced Concept Program
With the new Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway and Mars 2020 Rover in the works and Mars colonization on the horizon (which is totally not a race), you might be forgiven for thinking NASA's got enough on its plate.
But with SpaceX to compete with (not to mention China and Russia), NASA is stocking up on new, wild ideas with the 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concept program, which allows universities and companies to submit ideas for breakthrough technologies and missions.
A few of the standouts include a transforming robot designed to explore Titan called Shapeshifter, a rolling life-support system called BioBot designed for help humans explore Mars on foot, and a laser-powered engine meant to help humans conquer interstellar travel. See our highlights below.
First, let's deal with Shapeshifter, a robot rover that can turn into a ball and roll around the surface of a planet, transform into a winged flyer that can travel through atmospheres and caves, and morph into a torpedo-like vehicle that can dive through extraterrestrial oceans.
Apart from being incredibly versatile and mobile, Shapeshifter can handle "transporting large and heavy objects, traversing long distances with minimal power consumption, [and] creating communication networks to communicate to surface from deep hard-to-access areas."
Essentially, it's a tiny Autobot designed for other worlds.
Second is the BioBot, which helps solve the problem of EVA missions on the surface of planets, especially Mars.
In essence, BioBot takes all the weight off an astronaut's shoulders by carrying the bulky life-support system itself and following them around with an umbilical cord that provides them with oxygen (along with other essential services).
Rather than walking around on Mars or the Moon for a few days, the creators say, the BioBot could allow geologists and EVA missions to operate for weeks at a time.
According to the design doc submitted, "Our breakthrough architecture uses a kilometer-scale, multi-hundred-megawatt phased-array laser to beam power to a vehicle that converts it to electrical power for a multi-megawatt electric propulsion system..."
In layperson's terms, the project is to shoot lasers at a spacecraft that can convert the energy into movement, with the goal of propelling the craft 51 million miles (550 astronomical units) in less than 15 years.
You can see an expanded list of the Phase 1 and Phase 2 NIAC proposals here.