Research: NASA to explore Mars with swarm of robot bees

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nasa wants to explore mars with robotic bees

Researchers have proposed a swarm of collaborative robots as a better means of exploring Mars. Malek Murison reports.

Mars is a long way away. At its closest to Earth, it would be 33.9 million miles away, and at its furthest, 250 million miles. NASA’s preferred measurement is 140 million miles, with Earth’s closer orbit to the Sun lapping Mars every 2.16 years, providing the space agency with launch windows between planets whose relative positions are constantly changing.

Whichever measurement you choose, it’s clear that exploring Mars comes with enormous challenges. For human beings, these include a one-way trip lasting six to eight months of zero gravity and radiation exposure, during which time they would have to keep themselves fed, hydrated, and constantly exercised to prevent atrophy of body and mind.

Then they would have to land safely – tricky in a thin atmosphere – survive on Mars for long enough to make the project worthwhile, launch from the surface back into space, and make the journey home in the same hazardous conditions. That means carrying enough food, water, and fuel to survive a return trip that may be even longer than the first. Finally, it may take weeks or months to adjust to life back on Earth.

So far, these obstacles have proved to be insurmountable, especially since the last time astronauts ventured beyond Earth orbit was 46 years ago, when Apollo 17 touched down on the Moon. This why all explorations of Mars to date have been via telescope, space probe, or landing a robot on the surface – several attempts at which have failed.

So NASA’s solar-powered, 185 kilograms (408 lb) Mars rover, Opportunity, is a stunning scientific and technological achievement, and to date it has spent more than 5,000 days roaming the planet. But while there is no doubting the scale of NASA’s Mars progress to date, a single rover moving slowly over the surface doesn’t represent an efficient way to explore a planet.

NASA is well aware of this, and has invited research teams to submit alternative methods as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which aims to “nurture visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs radically better, or entirely new aerospace concepts.”

Read more: Bee robotic: Walmart files patents on automating agriculture

Harnessing the power of swarms

Among the 25 shortlisted proposals are plans to develop a swarm of small, flying robotic drones, called Marsbees.

An article published by the University of Alabama’s Chang-kwon Kang provides details of a robotic program that could “increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping-wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment.”

Put simply, NASA wants to see whether a swarm of small, flying reconnaissance robots could operate in tough Martian conditions – including its much thinner atmosphere – or if the idea belongs in the realm of science fiction.

The proposed system would use a Mars rover as a kind of beehive – the home base where recharging takes place. The Marsbees might be around bumblebee size, with wings the size of a cicada’s. Each robot would be fitted with sensors and wireless communication devices.

Should the concept prove successful in tests, the exploration of Mars could benefit from an swarm that creates an adaptable, resilient sensor network. Environmental samples and data collection could be carried out by single Marsbees, or by groups working collaboratively.

Read more: NASA tests drone traffic control system across the US

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Developing the Marsbee concept will bring together expertise from both the US and Japan, with greatest challenge being to address the physics of winged flight in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Fortunately, the team from Japan has already developed similar technology, highlighted by one of the only hummingbird micro air vehicles (MAV) in the world. The University of Alabama team will now work to optimise the technology to suit the atmospheric conditions on the red planet.

Read more: NASA looks to bring IoT to space with wireless comms test

Read more: SpaceX successfully blasts broadband into space

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New NASA Plan for Mars Is Moderately-Terrifying-Sounding, Also, Completely-Awesome: Robotic. Bees.

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Mars: It’s far. Costs money to explore. And right now, we’ve got a rover just sitting there doing nothing. So NASA’s got a new plan for mapping out Mars: Robotic bees. 

Exploring potential habitats that are tens of millions of kilometers away with the use of a 3,893 kg (8,583 lb) rover is slow, unwieldy, and pricy — NASA’s estimates exhausted its funding reserves with the nearly $ 2.5 billion rover. But a team of researchers at the University of Huntsville, Alabama recently came up with an alternative that, on paper, sounds like the way we all die at the hands of SkyNet: “Marsbees.”

It’s actually not-at-all terrifying, and kind of incredible. See here:

Image Credit: C. Kang

You get the idea: Marsbees would be a swarm of “bumblebee size” flapping robots that could cover a far greater distance (with a lot less effort) than a rover could. But that doesn’t mean a rover would be left out: a rover would serve as a recharge station and main communications hub for the bees.

One of the Marsbees primary objectives would be to take air samples for the detection of methane emissions (since the Martian atmosphere is mostly made of carbon dioxide, detecting other gases like methane or carbon monoxide is potentially a sign of life, and thus, incredibly exciting). The Curiosity rover previously found extremely low levels of methane on the surface of Mars, but their presence was mostly chalked up to seasonal patterns, not biological processes.

The idea was one of 25 shortlisted proposals submitted to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program. Other proposals on the shortlist include shapeshifting robots that can roll up into a ball and roll on the surface of Titan, and balloon platforms navigating extreme terrains.

“Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere,” writes Chang-kwon Kang, Assistant Professor at the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering of The University of Alabama in Huntsville in a NASA blog post. Since the Mars environment is so thin (only one hundredth to one thousandth that of sea level atmospheric pressure on Earth), there’s not much air for wings to push a flapping robot along. But luckily, gravitational pull is only a third on Mars. NASA scientists are hoping to take advantage of this, and are planning to recoup wasted energy with a sophisticated energy harvesting mechanism.

The advantages of having a rover like Curiosity be swarmed by robo-bees are plenty: a swarm of mobile flapping robots would be far more flexible, and resilient — a single bee getting swept up in a dust storm, in other words, wouldn’t be a big deal. Navigating the rocky, and mountainous surface would also be easier exploring the planet by air. Multiple bees could also form a network of sensors, improving the accuracy of their findings.

The Huntsville team is proposing to link up with a Japanese team of researchers to make the Marsbee a reality, and given the fact that the Japanese team has already developed a hummingbird Micro-Air Vehicle that’s “one of only a few robotic flappers in the world that can fly on Earth,” the swarm might be a reality sooner than you think.

Which means more Mars, potentially, for us. Or at least information about it. Elsewhere, sorry, melissophobiacs: Your apocolypse is more inevitable than ever before. Enjoy that.

The post New NASA Plan for Mars Is Moderately-Terrifying-Sounding, Also, Completely-Awesome: Robotic. Bees. appeared first on Futurism.

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NASA explores ‘quiet’ supersonic flight over land

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Today, NASA announced its latest experimental aircraft called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD). The agency signed a contract to design the plane back in 2016; now it's ready to proceed with development and construction. If the LBFD is successf…
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Congress is giving NASA more money than it requested to build a second launch platform

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<em>The mobile launcher under construction at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.</em>

Today, Trump signed into law a massive $ 1.3 trillion spending bill that will fund the federal government through the rest of fiscal year 2018, and the deal is quite generous to NASA. Practically all of NASA’s programs get a funding boost, and the space agency even gets money that it didn’t ask for — notably, the funds needed to build a second launch platform for its next big rocket.

The spending bill gives NASA an extra $ 350 million in 2018 to make the structure, which will be used for future launches of the Space Launch System. That’s the deep space vehicle the agency has been developing for the last decade. A mobile launch platform is key for the SLS since the structure will transport the rocket to its launch site at Kennedy Space…

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NASA wants your pictures of clouds to verify its satellites’ data

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NASA announced this week that it's looking for some citizen scientists to help out with a project. Six orbiting instruments make up NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) project and they are used to study Earth's climate and the…
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NASA wants your help checking its satellites — so send in your cloud pics

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NASA is asking all cloud gazers to snap photos of the sky and share them with the space agency via an app. The citizen science project is needed to validate data from six Earth-observing instruments on different satellites. And it’s likely to make #CloudTwitter incredibly happy.

The instruments are part of a project called Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES), which aims to better understand what roles clouds play in global climate change, among other things. Clouds, however, are sometimes hard to identify from up high. For example, thin, wispy cirrus clouds, the most common type of high cloud, are difficult to spot against a background of snow, according to NASA. That’s why satellite observations need to be compared with…

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Out of This World: NASA Funded Health Innovation Platform Announced at SXSW 2018

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News that’s out of this world is making headlines this week at SXSW.

On Monday, MMW learned that Rice University and Energizing Health have announced a new health innovation platform grant awarded from the NASA funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).

The grant funds the Collaborative Health Innovation Platform (CHIP) which will enable users from government organizations such as NASA, academia, and industry to connect with a global network of entrepreneurs and researchers. CHIP matches technologies and qualified start-ups with healthcare organizations with defined pain points to personalize innovation outcomes.

“While startups affecting space-health may have the most inventive products, they may also be the most capital constrained. We want CHIP to help us find and fund technologies for space, but then connect them to healthcare organizations on Earth that can optimize and extend their reach,” says Dorit Donoviel, Director, Translational Research Institute for Space Health. “Eventually, we intend for CHIP to be a unique one-stop-shop of collaboration, investment, and incubation for all biomedical technologies.”

CHIP was introduced during SXSW to over thirty of the nation’s health innovation leaders at a private Sunday morning gathering. Prior to the announcement, several of the executives had already been reviewing how the CHIP platform could be leveraged on behalf of their healthcare organizations.

“Investors and funding organizations can use CHIP to engage with cutting-edge health technologies being developed by innovators in universities, hospitals, research institutes, or industry startups,” says Yael Hochberg, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Rice University. “The platform will allow for corporations and other large organizations to use the knowledge we have gained from this project to more easily identify and partner with startups.”

“The CHIP platform is not just about research – It has implications for the global health and medtech startup community,” says Brian Lang, CEO, Energizing Health. “Our research with Rice will arm us with better knowledge about the needs of startups and large organizations. CHIP can then integrate those insights in a constantly growing machine learning environment that can be made available to large organizations who are looking for startups with specific technologies or solutions.”

To learn more, click here.

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NASA wants to change the way we think about the habitable zone

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"There are great possibilities in expanding the habitable zone beyond our traditional blinders on that vision where it's Earth or nothing." That's Dr. Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She's currently worki…
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NASA Has A Leaning Launch Tower. Here’s What You Need To Know About It.

Anybody who has ever hung a picture knows it’s a challenge to figure out if something is level. Yet it might be concerning to hear NASA is having the same trouble with their Mobile Launcher structure, built to propel their enormous Space Launch System (SLS) rocket into space. According to NASASpaceFlight.com, this tower is leaning.

The Mobile Launcher (ML) structure is designed to support testing and servicing of the rocket, as well as move it to the launch pad and aid in the launch itself. It’s not quite bent enough to require an emergency fix, but NASA officials probably won’t beeline for the ML when they show Vice President Mike Pence around the facilities this week.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

Not only is the tower less than perfectly straight; it also cost nearly $ 1 billion, and could be used as little as just once. Because of its lean, and the difficulties the agency has had with the tower, it’s possible it will be used for the initial launch of the SLS in 2020 and then discarded. NASA will also potentially scrap the idea of building a second one.

As we did, we’re sure you have some questions about the Leaning Tower of NASA. We also have some answers.

Q: How did this even happen?

A: The construction of this ML began in 2009 for the Ares I rocket. When that project was canceled, and NASA began looking at options to launch the developing SLS rocket, the lowest-cost option appeared to be “simply” modifying this tower.

A NASA spokesperson told NASASpaceflight that the lean is probably due to the modifications made to convert it from an Ares I launcher to an SLS launcher.

“The first surveys of the tower in 2011 indicated some deflection and imperfections, which is not unusual for big steel construction of this magnitude,” the agency said in a statement, NASASpaceflight.com reports. “This is likely due to a combination of welding the different levels and modifying them one at a time from the ML’s original design for the Ares rocket, changes introduced in the structure during these modifications, and the additional mass.”

NASA also added that other natural factors could have caused the giant steel structure to move and twist, such as wind, temperature, and vibration as the tower was moved on its crawling transporter.

Q: What does this mean for the fate of the ML? 

NASA says the tower is structurally sound and “does not require a design change or modifications.” Apparently, the lean is well understood, and it has so far matched model predictions.

Additional models have predicted how much more the tower might lean as newer parts are installed – and the space agency has a plan in place if that does happen: engineers could remove all of the lightweight fiberglass grating on the tower and replace it with heavier steel grating.

However, this change would add another 750,000 pounds to the launcher, taking it a million pounds over its desired weight target — not great for something that will have to be moved around with a heavy rocket on it.

NASASpaceflight.com reports that this wouldn’t be an issue for the SLS Block 1 rocket, set to launch in 2020, but could be a problem for the much larger SLS Block 1B. This feeds into the agency’s desire to construct another brand-new, purpose-built launcher.

Q: Could this happen again? 

In 2011, modifying the $ 234 million launcher was estimated to cost an additional $ 54 million, which appeared to be the cheapest option. However, things don’t always go according to plan, and NASA ended up spending a total of $ 912 million on the ML. Furthermore, because NASA intends to improve the SLS’s upper stage to support a larger payload and further range for Block 1B, the ML will require 33 more months of construction and, of course, more money.

Instead, building a second ML is estimated to cost $ 300 million — if this one manages to stay on budget. Yet there’s currently no budget for a secondary launcher, making it unlikely that we’ll see a twin any time soon.

If another launcher were to materialize, NASA has received several grim safety lessons in learning from their mistakes; we’d guess the agency will take pains to ensure the next launcher remains on the straight and narrow.

Testing of the First RS-25 Engine Controller, to be used on the SLS flight. Image Credit: NASA
Testing of the First RS-25 Engine Controller, to be used on the SLS flight. Image Credit: NASA

Q: Where does this leave NASA in the increasingly crowded world of spaceflight?

A: In short, we’ll probably have to wait two years or so to find out the answer to this one. A billion dollars later and with likely only one launch in store, one would hope the SLS better be something special. Still, in the world of reusable rockets that are lowering the cost of space travel, this price tag is a little grim.

The SLS is more powerful than the Falcon Heavy while remaining equally capable of ferrying passengers. NASA describes the SLS as having “unprecedented lift capability” and asserts that this, among others, improvement could allow us to venture further into the solar system than ever before. Its payload will be so massive it will even carry an Orion spacecraft, planned to one day take humans to Mars, into low-Earth orbit.

However, we all know that NASA isn’t the only organization building a massive spacecraft pointed towards Mars. With multiple entities jockeying to put boots on Mars, let’s just hope NASA’s launcher can lean into the challenge.

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