NASA tests robots for life on Saturn’s moon Titan30. September 2019
NASA tests robots for life on Saturn’s moon Titan
New York, 30.9.2019
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is now testing a 3D-printed prototype of the Shapeshifter. It “looks like a drone enclosed in a long hamster wheel,” NASA says. It can be divided into two halves that float through the air with small propellers like drones.
The fully realized version of Shapeshifter would be a “mothercraft” lander that carries a collection of 12 miniature robots (“cobots”) to the surface, acts as a main power source, and uses a set of scientific instruments that can directly analyze samples. The robots could work together to carry the mother ship and bring it to different areas. They could be operated individually or as a coherent unit to adapt to a variety of terrains and environments.
For example, the robots could separate and fly in different directions or together as a herd, explore caves or even swim in liquids.
Why do we need it? Recent studies of the Saturn system (largely thanks to the Cassini mission) have taught us a lot about the surface and atmosphere of Saturn’s moons. Titan is a particularly tempting target: it has deep lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and its blurred atmosphere suggests that it may have active geological features such as icy volcanoes that trigger water or ammonia. All this raises hopes that there are ingredients suitable for life there.
If the tests go well, NASA could support the shape-shifter for a real mission, but that’s a long, long way off in the future. At least these tests could inspire new designs for other future alien missions.