NASA Sparks Its Imagination

Rovers that ride winds on Venus, robots that roll like tumbleweeds and other wild ideas for exploring space

Flying into the future
Flying into the future Image courtesy of the University of Miami

It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?

And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.

Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.

Since then, Curiosity has shifted into research mode. It has started moving around and has sent back some stunning images, including a few in 3-D.

But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.

I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.

But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.

Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.

Submarines in space

No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.

Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:

1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.

2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.

3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.

4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.

5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.

6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.

7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.

8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.

Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.

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