NASA Funds Robotic Tumbling Cubes for Space Exploration

How does NASA want to explore asteroids? Cubes. Lots of cubes

2 min read
NASA Funds Robotic Tumbling Cubes for Space Exploration

NASA wants to go to an asteroid. Great! And once NASA gets there, then what? Exploration, of course, since that's what NASA does. But the microgravity (or minigravity?) environment is a challenging one to get around in. There's likely not enough gravity to use wheels or treads to drive across an asteroid, and moving from place to place using thrusters would be complicated and dangerous and suck up a lot of fuel. If you've taken the time to glance at the picture at the top of this article, you know one potential solution: robotic tumbling cubes that can move by themselves, as if by magic. That's because their motion is driven entirely from the inside.

Essentially, NASA is funding a microgravity version of these:

 

Or maybe more accurately, this:

 

So yes, this has all been done before. Or at least, it's been done before on Earth, which may be harder in some ways because of that whole gravity thing. Space telescopes (and other space-y things) use reaction wheels to orient themselves, so it's been done (sort of) in microgravity, too. What's new about these cubes is the application to asteroids, and it makes a lot of sense. You don't get the fine level of control with this sort of jumping, tumbling motion that you'd get with a wheeled rover, but you can get generally where you need to go.

There are lots of other advantages to this design, too. It's sealed up with no external moving parts, which ought to improve reliability. It doesn't depend on expendable propellant, so with some solar panels on it, you'd be good to tumble around indefinitely. Putting different instruments on different sides of the cube gives you plenty of options for surface contact measurements. You'd deploy a bunch of these things from a mothership, which takes care of all of the control and communications and localization and navigation stuff, allowing the tumbling robots to be (relatively) cheap and simple.

The funding that this project is getting from NASA isn't for a deployable, space-ready system: it'll be enough to get the concept from TRL 2 to TRL 3.5. TRLs are Technology Readiness Levels, an actual government term that describes how improbably crazy some experimental new technology is. TRL 2 is "technology concept and/or application formulated," TRL 3 is "analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof of concept," and TRL 4 is "component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment."

For something to make it into space on a mission, it probably has to hit TRL 8, which is "actual system completed and qualified through test and demonstration." So don't hold your breath on this one, but by the time NASA figures out how to successfully wrangle asteroids, these little robots will probably be good to go.

Via [ NASA ]

The Conversation (0)

How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

Keep Reading ↓Show less