10 Game-Changing New Space Vehicle Concepts

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The most exciting concepts are usually the ones farthest from fruition. But if our forebears didn’t explore the unlikely, we never would have skipped across the Sea of Tranquility or smashed protons into dust. Similarly, if we don’t embrace the unlikely today, we’ll never be able to experience the outer planets or open theme parks on Mars.

Swarm Flyby Gravimetry

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While most satellites are growing larger, aerospace engineer Justin Atchison proposes going smaller—far smaller. And he’s been awarded a Phase I grant from NASA to develop his proposed Swarm Flyby Gravimetry. That sounds incredibly ominous, but the swarms are actually schools of adorably tiny probes. This was among 12 projects to receive NASA’s tentative blessing at a recent symposium for advanced exploratory concepts. The swarms are perfect for studying some of the smallest bodies in our solar system. These bodies’ near-nonexistent gravity has left them uncharted. Without gravity acting as the metaphorical string between ball and paddle, they shoot off past each other at quite some speed.

Tiny robots offer a solution. And Atchison wants to chuck them at small asteroids. It’s difficult to ascertain the masses of minuscule space chunks. So a larger mother probe will fire a buckshot of reflective baby probes directly into an asteroid’s face. The many, scattered flight paths of the nanoprobes will be digitally combined to extrapolate the body’s gravitational field. And it’s super-efficient, as a single batch of cheap nanoprobes performs the job of many conventional flybys. The data surrendered by the tiny asteroids provides chemical signatures and clues about inner structures.

TALISE: Paddle Boats On Titan

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Even though Europa and Mars get most of the love in the search for aliens, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, may quietly house the most interesting aliens of them all. Europa has a saltwater ocean, and we know early Mars could have passed for adolescent Earth. But at –180 degrees Celsius (–290 °F), Titan’s seas have swapped water for liquid hydrocarbon. So if any life-form arose in this absurd environment, it would have a unique structure.Conventional rovers don’t get their feet wet.

So to find these scary life-forms, we need to ply the methane seas with a paddleboat. Designed by a cooperative of Spanish engineers and astrobiologists, TALISE looks ripped out of a Playskool catalog. Yet its destiny lies at the heart of Titan’s second-largest sea, Ligeia Mare. Formally the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, TALISE weighs over 100 kilograms (220 lb) and would be good for a six-month mission. There’s no launch date yet, as the creators are still deciding on a propulsion system. Though after much culling, they’re down to three options: smooth wheels, paddles, or corkscrews. Sadly, all the coolest options were already deemed infeasible. So don’t get too excited at the prospect of tank treads, propellers, and hover jets.

Mars Helicopter

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Countless rover concepts have been proposed over the years. So have almost as many propulsion systems, including rolling, bouncing, burrowing, and even swimming. But we haven’t seen many flying rovers—until now. By introducing another plane of movement into the space exploration equation, a ground-based rover’s daily driving range can be increased threefold. But the Mars helicopter won’t force its wheeled brethren out of their jobs since it’s more of a supplemental vehicle.

NASA’s “little helicopter that could” is ultra-portable—it’s about 1.2 meters (4 ft) across at its blade tips and weighs a bit over 1 kilogram (2 lb). The chopper’s primary duty is to act as autonomous scout, exploring well in advance of its surface rover.Getting a billion-dollar vehicle stuck against a rock over 50 million miles away is a huge problem, and behind-the-scenes planning is responsible for every red inch the current rover gains.

But a flying recon vehicle could quickly pick out the clearest path for its plodding rover partner, sparing its human handlers a lot of trouble. From its lofty perch, the copter could survey areas of interest not visible from the ground, spotting oddly shaped rocks for eventual rover-pickup. The most exciting part is that NASA hopes to have a fully operational prototype within three years. So if all goes according to plan, the diminutive helicopter might just be ready in time to accompany the next Mars rover in 2020.

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