From Birds on Venus to Swimming Robots, NASA Unveils Mind-Blowing Projects

As astronomers prepare for the first observations to be delivered by the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), NASA has selected several projects to support that could go on to play important roles in the future of space exploration.

The early-stage projects that could support future aeronautics and space missions were selected by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for funding and evaluation.

The NIAC focuses on visionary ideas that could lead to breakthroughs in space science, meaning that the ideas are well-founded in science, but also entirely new and often "out there" in terms of what is currently being done in the field.

Among the latest innovations, which will see a total of $5.1 million shared by 17 researchers from nine states, are custom made space suits, inflatable robotic birds that could swoop into the atmosphere of Venus to collect samples, and robotic micro-swimmers that could do the same on ocean worlds like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, Enceladus, Europa and Titan.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a press release: "As we set our sights on ever more challenging destinations for exploration with humans and robots, innovative ideas and future thinking will be critical to helping us reach new milestones.

"Concepts like those being studied with this new round of NIAC funding are helping us expand the scope of the possible so we can make it a reality."

The Future of Human Space Exploration

NASA is ramping up for the next stage in crewed space exploration, which will include the return of people to the moon, and the first human to set foot on the surface of Mars. Unsurprisingly, some of its new early-stage projects include innovations to assist in this regard.

Bonnie Dunbar from Texas A&M proposed a "custom" cost-effective high-performance exploration spacesuit for Mars. After scanning and analyzing an astronaut, the system sends data to robotic manufacturing that creates a new customized spacesuit.

This means that explorers on Mars or elsewhere can have a specially designed suit that is tailored to specific environments or missions and can be created rapidly.

A project from Arizona State University selected by NASA could make breathing on Mars even easier. The team suggests stationary and portable devices that can create breathable oxygen on the Red Planet by using thermodynamics to separate it out from the Martian atmosphere, thus reducing the risk of exploration of the surface by humans.

Elena D'Onghia and her University of Wisconsin, Madison, team's project focuses on protecting astronauts from harmful cosmic rays and solar radiation. Just as Earth's magnetic field does that for life on our planet, this project, CREW HaT, involves magnetic coils that can be carried by a crew producing an external magnetic field to divert harmful charged particles.

Even with this protection in place, in this new era of humans reaching into space, some locations are still too far out to be visited by us. That's why other projects focus on sending robots in our place.

Robotic Sample Collection on Air, Sea and Land

While Venus is our closest neighbor, its conditions make it an inhospitable and impractical planet for humans to visit. Two of the selected projects suggest methods to explore Venus remotely from the air.

The Bio-inspired Ray for Extreme Environments and Zonal Exploration (BREEZE) from the University at Buffalo combines the use of inflatable structures with inspiration from flying animals to create a flyer that can swoop through the upper atmosphere of Venus, riding on zonal winds.

The high degree of controllability of the project provided by pectoral and pelvic fins that allow flapping flight gives it an advantage over similar suggestions, as it could collect data from Venus' dark side, inaccessible to other fliers and balloons that are projected to drift towards the planet's poles.

Another project looks at the exploration of an entirely different environment. The aptly named SWIM, or Sensing with Independent Micro-swimmers, by NASA JPL involves a shoal of 3D-printed swimming micro-robots.

These robots would be equipped with sensors and propelled by miniature actuators, wirelessly communicating with ultrasound waves to search the oceans of Jupiter and Saturn's moons Enceladus, Europa, and Titan, looking for the key markers of life.

The project suggested by Marco Pavone of Stanford University also suggests robots that can search beneath the surface of an alien world, in this case, the barren rocky surface of Mars.

Pavone puts forward ReachBot, a mobile manipulation platform with lightweight extendable booms that have a large reach with a small footprint. This grants ReachBot access to steep, vertical and overhanging surfaces making it ideal to explore Martian caves beneath the surface of the Red Planet.

Despite these proposed advances in robotic exploration planets outside the solar system, or exoplanets, will remain out of range for physical visits. But that doesn't mean NASA's new projects don't include ideas to facilitate better discovery and investigation of these distant worlds, which revolve around other stars.

John Mather from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center put forward an adaption for ground-based telescopes currently under construction, including the Extremely Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert region of Northern Chile, which could turn them into the most powerful planet finders yet designed.

The device Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) is a moving shade that blocks light from an exoplanet's parent star without blocking light reflected by the exoplanet. It could make the tricky task of detecting faint, Earth-like worlds in distant systems much simpler.

Defending the Earth

The projects selected for support by NIAC also have applications much closer to home and could protect humanity from disaster.

Philip Lubin at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests an array of small hypervelocity kinetic penetrators that pulverize and disassemble an asteroid or small comet that is on a collision course with Earth. The fragments created are then dissipated by Earth's atmosphere.

Unlike other asteroid mitigation projects, the Pi -Terminal Defense for Humanity system can be deployed in a short time scale, meaning Earth's authorities would need less warning time of an approaching asteroid or comet.

The project suggested by Jonathan Sauder, NASA JPL, focuses on threats to humanity from inside the atmosphere rather than from the solar system. Sauder suggests a system of satellites or constellations, that can monitor and track the development of storms providing accurate storm predictions that could save lives.

NASA New projects
Illustrations of some of NASA's new early-stage projects that "expand the scope of the possible" including projectiles capable of pummeling Earth threatening asteroids to star shades that can help hunt for exoplanets. NASA