UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Small robots are combined into a wheel that rolls on the surface, then into a quadcopter, and then into a submarine. Fantasy? No. A project that NASA engineers are working on. The transformer is supposed to be sent to the most mysterious and possibly inhabited moon of Saturn – Titan.
Recall that Titan is the only body in the Solar System besides the Earth, on the surface of which a fluid stably exists. True, in the seas and lakes of this moon, not water splashes, but liquid methane and ethane.
The water ocean, experts say, is hidden beneath the surface , but this water can be thrown out through the vents of cryovolcanoes. The complex organic matter that this satellite is rich in signals that its own microorganisms can inhabit it.
It is not surprising that such an intriguing celestial body attracts the attention of astronomers. But it is extremely difficult for space engineers to predict what a probe might face in such a distant and diverse world.
“We have very limited information about the nature of the surface [on which the apparatus will fall]. Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes – all of this could potentially be there, but we don’t know for sure,” project co-author Ali Agha from the Laboratory explains NASA’s jet propulsion.
“So we were thinking about how to create a universal system that can navigate different types of terrain, yet compact enough to launch on a rocket.”
The result of the developers’ research was the Shapeshifter project , which can be translated as “Shape-changing. This is a system of several fairly simple and compact robots, which the authors call cobots.
Each cobot is a drone equipped with a small propeller. It is planned that such a drone will easily move in a rather dense atmosphere of Titan with its weak attraction.
Robots can also team up to fly to lift a heavy load. According to the authors, together 10 cobots can carry a three-meter descent vehicle the size of Huygens (a probe that landed on Titan in 2005).
Thus, drones will be able to transfer their landing module from place to place, which will serve as their base for recharging batteries, communicating with the Earth, and so on.
But flying is far from the only Shapeshifter feature. A pair of cobots can unite into a wheel, and several robots into a sphere. This shape is convenient to roll on a flat surface. They can also be assembled in the likeness of a submarine or a torpedo, using their screws to move in the liquid.
According to the developers, robots can also go down into the cave and line up in a chain that will provide them with a connection to the surface.
Engineers are already testing prototypes of cobots printed on a 3D printer. True, they are not yet completely autonomous. To work, they occasionally require operator commands.
The project is funded as part of the first round of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts ( NIAC). In 2020, he will have to withstand the jury’s assessment, which will decide whether development will go into the second phase of the competition.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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