What are some conceptual technologies that could be used in space exploration?

NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NASA

Innovative Advanced Concepts or NIAC) has recently presented some concepts that may be used in the next missions.

1. Swimming microrobots for ocean worlds.

Oceanic worlds, where there are liquid oceans under miles of icy crust, are some of the places in our solar system most likely to support life, a very attractive prospect for scientists. Accessing and exploring these aquatic environments pose unique challenges. Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, is investigating a promising idea for exploration: using centimeter-scale 3D-printed robots equipped with sensors and actuators. A mother ship drilling through the ice and deploying the microrobots would also control them wirelessly using ultrasound waves.

2. Long-range crawling and anchoring robots for Martian caves.

While swimming robots might be ideal for some destinations, others will require something with a firmer grip. Marco Pavone, an associate professor at Stanford University, is developing a possible solution. The concept of the ReachBot could quickly crawl through caves, using extendable feathers to grab onto long distances. Its various features would allow small, lightweight robots to navigate challenging environments, such as vertical cliff faces or uneven, rocky floors in caves on Mars.

3. Light and deployable structures that expand in space.

Getting large spacecraft off Earth requires a lot of planning, as the size of what can go into space depends on what can fit on a rocket. Multiple launches and assembly in space have been successful in the past, but there could be another way. Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Zachary Manchester is studying how to integrate recent advances in mechanical metamaterials into the design of a lightweight, deployable structure. Such a structure could be launched inside a rocket’s fairing and then autonomously deployed to a final size the length of 10 football fields.

4. Seed asteroids with mushrooms to create space soil.

Space habitat concepts come in all shapes and sizes. But all the designs have a common challenge that requires innovative thinking: how will space travelers hold up during long voyages? Jane Shevtsov, who works with the Trans Astronautica Corporation, proposes creating soil from carbon-rich asteroid material. The fungi would physically break down the material and chemically degrade any toxic substances. Similar processes take place on Earth, like oyster mushrooms cleaning up oil-contaminated soil. NIAC research aims to find ways for future space habitats to have ample green spaces and robust agricultural systems.