My mother’s generation witnessed man first entering space, and the subsequent moon landing by Neal Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, but for my generation, the excitement of watching humans walk on the moon in realtime has yet to happen. Instead, we were there to witness all of NASA’s Mars rovers launching and landing on the moon. For us, space exploration has been less about the human element and more about utilizing technology in the form of robotics to safely explore areas of our solar system that humans would have a very hard time exploring in person. The Mars Rover Sojourner ultimately ended up as failures after making it to the red planet and losing communications just a couple of weeks after landing, but the Spirit rover, Opportunity, and Curiosity were all major successes.
What set these rovers apart was the advancement in mechanical and electrical engineering, material sciences, and computer sciences that they represented. While I am disappointed that I have yet to witness a human walking on the moon, I am deeply grateful for the publicly funded research NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory have worked on over the years. I still have hope that I will one day be able to witness a manned Moon or Martian landing, but if that does not happen in my lifetime, at least I have more planet-exploring robots to look forward to.
Research into the next generation of exploration robots is currently being conducted by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which offers several phases of funding to visionary concepts, helping turn ideas that sound like science fiction into science fact. NASA and JPL recently released information on a NIAC project that is focused on creating a group of robots that are capable of independent movement, research, and communication that can also assemble itself together into a larger robot that is capable of other tasks. Dubbed Shapeshifter, the current prototype is comprised of two robots that can autonomously connect together to form a hamster wheel-like shape that is able to easily roll across rough terrain but is also able to split itself in half, forming two separate drone-like robots that can easily fly across terrain that might be impossible to navigate by land-based methods otherwise.
"It is often the case that some of the hardest places to get to are the most scientifically interesting because maybe they're the youngest, or they're in an area that was not well characterized from orbit," said Jason Hofgartner, JPL lead scientist for Shapeshifter. "Shapeshifter's remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places."
A prototype of the transforming robot Shapeshifter is tested in the robotics yard at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Shapeshifter is made of smaller robots that can morph into rolling spheres, flying drones, swimming submersibles and more. Shapeshifter is a developing concept for a transformational vehicle to explore treacherous, distant worlds. The flying amphibious robot is part of the early-stage research program NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Shapeshifter team envisions several of these shape-shifting robots that can split apart into individual robots who can tackle separate tasks such as cave exploration, soil sampling, air quality sampling, spectral analysis of interesting mineral samples, etc. While these robots will likely end up on Mars at some point, the Shapeshifting team has a target already in mind, and that target is a Moon of Saturn named Titan. For those who are not as space-savvy, Titan is the only other world in the solar system known to have liquid in the form of methane lakes, rivers and seas on its surface. While this environment may be too harsh, and too far away for humans to visit in person, a swarm of shapeshifting robots could make their way to Titan, and provide us with valuable details on the composition of such an alien world as well as more clues into the origin of our own solar system.
"We have very limited information about the composition of the surface. Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes - we potentially have all of these, but we don't know for certain," said Ali Agha, JPL’s Principal Investigator. "So we thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket."
Titan is also a good target for drone-like rovers as it has a fairly dense atmosphere, and low gravity, making flight easier than somewhere with a thin atmosphere like Mars. Agha envisions a mothership-like landing craft that would be used as a sort of home-base for the Shapeshifting robotic swarm, and thanks to flight being a possibility on Titan, the mothership could theoretically fly around to different areas of Titan, set up base for a few weeks, and then let the Shapeshifters go out and gather data before coming back home for a recharge, and if a nuclear power source is used on the mothership, the shapeshifters could explore until they experience mechanical or electrical failures, extending their mission life by years or even decades.
The Shapeshifter team will submit their concept to NIAC's Phase II selection process in 2020, but even if this new shapeshifting concept is selected, it could be many more years or longer until Shapeshifter visits a moon-like Titan. It’s more likely that we will see similar robots tested on the surface of the moon before launching a swarm of shapeshifting robots to Tian. However, the is hope as the next mission to Titan will be Dragonfly, NASA's first rotorcraft lander, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.