Stanford’s 2021 NIAC fellows working to bring sci-fi concepts to real space exploration

Two “out there” strategies from Stanford faculty get NASA funding in hopes that they could considerably advance room exploration.

A mothership that emits power with a laser beam to manipulate a probe craft in deep room. A robot that extends its arms to climb in Martian caverns and grasp objects.

These are innovations you could possibly hope to see in a science fiction movie – a person the place the hero embarks on interplanetary travel throughout the solar method. But they are also are visionary strategies from the minds of Stanford University scientists that have now been given funding from the NASA Ground breaking Superior Concepts (NIAC) Software.

Illustration of ReachBot traversing a Martian cavern applying microspine grippers throughout unique styles of treacherous terrain: (still left) a vertically winding tunnel with a rocky and uneven flooring, (centre) an overhanging wall or ceiling and (proper) a sheer vertical wall. Picture credit history: Marco Pavone / Stanford University

As 2021 NIAC fellows, Sigrid Close and Marco Pavone – both associate professors of aeronautics and astronautics – are becoming supplied the possibility to show the feasibility of their inventive ideas, acknowledged as SCATTER and ReachBot. Shut and Pavone are amid 14 other NIAC Phase I recipients who are obtaining $one hundred twenty five,000 to fund 9-month reports on their exploration strategies. However their strategies could possibly appear out of this earth, should really they succeed, they’d considerably influence room exploration.


About the system of her funding, Shut is working on proving her notion SCATTER, which stands for Sustained CubeSat/CHIPSat Exercise By way of Transmitted Electromagnetic Radiation. The plan is that a spaceship on a mission to deep room will be capable to power and command a probe with a transmitter.

SCATTER focuses on a mission to Uranus, but in accordance to Close’s collaborator Nicolas Lee, a exploration engineer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, it can be utilized to other deep room missions as properly.

Illustration of the mothership and probe subsystems in the SCATTER notion. Picture credit history: Sigrid Shut / Stanford University

“In general, little spacecraft have been driven by possibly solar or batteries,” mentioned Lee. But on a mission to a world far out in the solar method, like Uranus, applying the Sun’s rays is not feasible. “In conditions of the other alternatives with batteries, you have limited life so you can use that for very short-term missions.”

By beaming a laser from the mothercraft on to a probe, which can then transform the electrical power from the laser into electrical electrical power, the staff believes they can maintain prolonged-term missions, in particular with little, minimal mass probes.

“A number of many years in the past, we commenced pondering, ‘Well, we’re usually talking about guarding satellites from the room atmosphere,’ ” mentioned Shut. Then, they questioned, What if we can harness some of that electrical power?

“Even even though it’s unique from how it commenced, we commenced searching at unique ways to power spacecraft applying the room environment and then just type of prolonged it from there,” she explained.

In the coming months, Shut and Lee will be working on figuring out how little and straightforward they can make the deployable spacecraft so that they can use the laser to not only power the spacecraft but converse and command pointing with it.

According to Lee, the funding they get will seriously let the scientists to discover the mission notion aspect of SCATTER.

“It’s an honor,” mentioned Shut. “I’m seriously grateful to NASA and the NIAC committee for offering us this possibility.”


When questioned about the inspiration guiding ReachBot, Andrew Bylard, a graduate university student in aeronautics and astronautics who performs in Pavone’s lab, is fast to cite an unlikely couple: Spider-Person villain Medical professional Octopus and lovable Star Wars sidekick BB-8.

“The plan of ReachBot was born from this type of technological hole that exists in robotics nowadays,” mentioned Stephanie Schneider, who is also pursuing her PhD in aeronautics and astronautics while a member of Pavone’s lab.

In microgravity environments like the Global House Station or when climbing under gravity on Mars or the moon, crawling robots have to get anchor points to go and manipulate objects devoid of floating away or falling. If anchor points are number of and far in between, the robots are limited by how far they can reach.

ReachBot boosts its reach applying “extendable booms,” which extend out from its sides, like measuring tape. The booms can be rolled up compactly and, when unrolled, they are durable cylinders with light-weight grippers on the ends – which can get objects, be employed to anchor the bot to a selected issue or drive off of surfaces like a leg to go ReachBot about.

One particular compelling use for a bot like this is the exploration of Mars. Although the Mars rovers are terrific at rolling alongside the area, ReachBot would be capable of climbing on cliffs and through caves.

Right now, the staff is in the early stages of working on a components prototype of the bot. About the system of their NIAC Phase I funding, they prepare to target on proving the feasibility of ReachBot notion, which includes working with mechanical engineering professor Mark Cutkosky and geological sciences professor Mathieu Lapôtre to layout new light-weight spiny grippers and to refine the science targets for a climbing mission on Mars.

The major challenge to prevail over will be working on the motion and maneuvering of ReachBot’s “arms.” But the rewards for a robot that masters cell manipulation under these types of challenging gravity restraints are superior.

“The greatest spend-off for room robotics is seriously to allow your science,” mentioned Pavone.

Rethinking results

Not all NIAC fellows make it past Phase I. The projects are often described as “high-chance, superior-reward”: strategies that may well appear technologically out-there, but should really they succeed, they’d have a huge influence on room exploration.

“I consider it’s seriously vital that, as a neighborhood, we fund these types of chopping-edge strategies and consider those threats,” mentioned Shut, whose notion for a little satellite to characterize asteroid surfaces been given NIAC Phase I funding in 2018.

Pavone, who was previously awarded a NIAC Phase I fellowship in 2011 for his notion of a hopping robot for navigating on asteroids and comets, thinks it’s vital to have a unique outlook on what “failure” means.

“Even if we are unsuccessful – or in general a person of these ideas fails – generally what transpires is that all through the system you learn some other items, or some areas of the notion that you produce could be practical for other needs,” mentioned Pavone.

“So yeah, lots of of these ideas are unsuccessful in the sense that the exact proposed mission is often never flown but if you search at the broader photo, I would essentially argue that most of the ideas succeed.”

Supply: Stanford University