Visionary Tech Concepts Could Pioneer the Future in Space

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

While swimming robots could be ideal for some destinations, others will require something with a firmer grip. Marco Pavone, an associate professor at Stanford University, is developing a potential solution. His ReachBot concept could quickly crawl through caves, using extendable booms to grasp over long distances. Its various features would allow small and lightweight robots to move around in tricky environments, such as vertical cliff walls or the rocky and uneven floors of caves on Mars.

3. Lightweight deployable structures that expand in space.

Getting extra-large spacecraft off Earth takes lots of planning, as the size of what can go to space depends on how much a rocket can fit. Multiple launches and in-space assembly have proven successful in the past, but there could be another way. Assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University Zachary Manchester is considering ways to integrate recent advances in mechanical metamaterials into a lightweight deployable structure design. Such a structure could be launched inside a single rocket fairing and then deploy autonomously to a final size of the length of 10 football fields.

4. Seeding asteroids with fungi to create space soil.

Space habitat concepts come in all shapes and sizes. But all designs have a common challenge requiring innovative thinking: How will space travelers sustain themselves during long journeys? Jane Shevtsov, working with Trans Astronautica Corporation, offers creating soil from carbon-rich asteroid material. The fungi would physically break down the material and chemically degrade toxic substances. Similar processes take place on Earth, like oyster mushrooms cleaning up petroleum-contaminated soil. The NIAC research aims to find a way for future space habitats to have ample green space and robust agricultural systems.

The 2021 NIAC symposium will kick off Tuesday, Sept. 21. A keynote address by the Mars 2020 Planetary Protection Lead Moogega Cooper will air on NASA Television, the agency’s website, and the NASA app.

NASA selects NIAC proposals through a peer-review process that evaluates innovation and technical viability. All projects are still in the early stages of development, with most requiring a decade or more of technology maturation. They are not considered official NASA missions.

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