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NASA considering eel-like rover concept

An eel-like, soft-robotic rover equipped with an antenna that harvests power from changes in local magnetic fields is among 15 proposals selected by NASA for further study under the US space agency’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

The power-scavenging rover was designed by Mason Peck, an associate professor in the Cornell University Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, in order to enable amphibious exploration of gas-giant moons such as Europa. It could enable scientific investigation or human-precursor missions in places where solar- or nuclear-powered vehicles cannot travel.

In his proposal, Peck said the rover has “tentacle-like structures” that serve as both tethers to harvest power from magnetic fields and a means of bio-inspired propulsion. The power collected using those structures would run all rover subsystems, including one that produces a mixture of H2 and O2 gas through electrolysis to propel it through fluid or along a surface.

The robot would be capable of swimming in the ocean of Europa, he added, and would have stretchable skin capable of illuminating its surroundings for underwater imaging. It could assess the possibility that life on Europa may be powered by electromagnetic energy, and it might be a “pathfinder that introduces soft robotics into future rover trades,” Peck wrote.

Other projects include glider-like UAVs, revamped life support systems

Peck’s project and 14 others were selected under Phase I of the NIAC program, which officials at the agency said “aims to turn science fiction into science fact” by enabling the development of next-gen technology for use in the space program. Proposals cover an array of different concepts, all of which was selected “based on their potential value to future and current space missions.”

One proposal is examining the use of two glider-like unmanned aerial vehicles connected by an ultra-strong cable at different altitudes that sail without propulsion. These vehicles would harness wind shear in the lower stratosphere similar to a kite surfer, and could aid NASA’s Earth science missions, monitoring capabilities or aircraft navigation for years to come.

Other projects look to improve astronaut’s life-support systems, devise a way to create propellant while in space, and use cubesats and micro-seismometers to investigate the structure of asteroids and comets. Each approved proposal received Phase I awards valued at approximately $100,000, providing researchers with enough funding for a nine-month concept feasibility study.

“The latest NIAC selections include a number of exciting concepts,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are working with American innovators to reimagine the future of aerospace and focus our investments on concepts to address challenges of current interests both in space and here on Earth.”

“Most of the 2015 NIAC Phase I final candidates were outstanding, and choosing only 15 of them proved to be a challenge,” added NIAC program executive Jason Derleth. “We look forward to seeing how each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches – that’s what makes NIAC unique.”

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