With so many problems facing engineers and astronauts, it sometimes seems like this whole cosmic exploration thing really isn’t worth it. Fortunately, pro scientists and amateurs alike are putting their heads together to solve even the most challenging issues, often with enormous implications for the future of mankind.
The Hedgehog Comet-Hopper
As the Philae lander recently proved, landing on a comet is exceptionally tricky. Navigating across the surface of a comet? That’s a whole new problem. On a cosmic scale, comets are pebbles at best, and their paltry gravity doesn’t usually allow for terrestrial activities like moving around. A hearty sneeze could push one into orbit, and even wheels are rendered useless, making rovers unfeasible for comet exploration. Instead, NASA has revealed concepts for a smaller probe which can roll or launch itself in the low-gravity conditions. The Hedgehog robots, as they’re whimsically called, are basically cubes with spikes fastened at each corner.
These spikes not only protect the delicate scientific instruments within but also act as feet, using internal flywheels to launch the Hedgehog across the comet. When finesse is required, the Hedgehog can roll itself like a tumbleweed over smaller distances. The robots have already passed several microgravity tests aboard NASA’s C-9 aircraft and have proved themselves equally adept in a variety of simulated terrains. The Hedgehogs are also easy on NASA’s coffers, costing much less than pretty much anything that’s ever landed on a foreign body. And the best part? Watching the Hedgehog perform the “Tornado,” a spastic movement used to extricate the ‘Hog from sticky situations.
Plastic-Producing, Breath-Eating Yeast9- yeast
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Getting supplies to astronauts in deep space is close to impossible, so the solution is to look for a closer source—the astronauts themselves. NASA has recently awarded Clemons University $200,000 to perfect a method of deriving plastics and nutrition from urine and exhaled CO2. Chemical and bioengineering professor Mark Blenner wants to use a combination of yeast and algae to create an inexhaustible source of supplies, including Omega-3 fatty acids, to keep astronauts’ brains healthy.
Yeast is a miraculous organism and can be altered to produce all sorts of useful compounds up to and including plastic polymers, which can be woven into tools in situ, savings tons of dough in launch costs.But to keep the yeast happy, one needs plentiful nitrogen and lipids. Luckily, nitrogen is abundant in urine and readily supplied whenever nature calls. Procuring the delicious lipids is a more laborious prospect. Certain types of algae can manufacture these fatty substances out of carbon, which is itself extracted from the CO2 in the astronauts’ exhalations.
The Swiss Space Janitor
Inattentive teenage drivers and the morbidly obese aren’t the only ones to incur outrageous insurance premiums. As the bubble of space around Earth fills with trash, the danger to satellites increases and insurance rates skyrocket.
To attenuate the risk from hypersonic trash bullets, the cleanest country in the world, Switzerland, is sending up a robotic janitor. CleanSpace One is the name given to a prototypical line of custodial satellites tasked with sucking up the half-million pieces of crud mucking up Earth’s uppermost reaches.
After rendezvousing with a derelict chunk of space equipment at speeds approaching 29,000 kilometers per hour (18,000 mph), the CleanSpace One unit will grab hold with its mechanical arm and dispose of it in the most metal way possible: It will plunge to Earth, disintegrating both itself and the offending refuse in the process.
If all goes according to plan, expect to see these bad boys plying the orbital lanes by 2020.