My following article below was originally published by SERIOUS WONDER:
Guess what, readers? NASA wants to send cubes into space to help them explore, analyze, and extract resources from asteroids! No, I’m not talking about the Borg from Star Trek, though there is room for a potential hive mind. Similar to the Cubli, Assistant Professor Marco Pavone and his research team at Stanford University are developing automated spiked cubes which would allow them to traverse the microgravitational environment of asteroids.
“Our architecture relies on the novel concept of spacecraft/rover hybrids, which are surface mobility platforms capable of achieving large surface coverage (by attitude-controlled (sic) hops, akin to spacecraft flight), fine mobility (by tumbling), and coarse instrument pointing (by changing orientation relative to the ground) in the low-gravity environments (micro-g to milli-g) of small bodies.” – Marco Pavone
Microgravity surfaces, like an asteroid, aren’t suitable for wheeled robots to travel across. The spiked cube hybrids addresses this problem by tumbling across the surface with the help of its flywheels. Without the need of propellant, the cube’s automated tumbling and jumping provides an advantageous potential to travel indefinitely, so long its means of energy input is self-sufficient, i.e. via photovoltaic panels.
NASA’s design concept of the hybrid cube takes on a minimalistic procedure of operations, making up only three internal flywheels which enclose the entire cube’s subsystem. This results in a much more affordable approach in automated space travel in microgravity areas within our Solar System – i.e. asteroids, comets, etc.
“A mother spacecraft would deploy over the surface of a small body one, or several, spacecraft/rover hybrids, which are small, multi-faceted enclosed robots with internal actuation and external spikes.” – Marco Pavone
NASA’s cube project is currently going through two different phases. In Phase I, which has been completed, Marco and his team had to show that the cube’s design concept had a substantial engineering basis to it. Phase II has two objectives: 1) advancing the cube’s mobility subsystem (localization, navigation and control) from TRL 2 to TRL 3.5 (TRL meaning Technology Readiness Levels), and 2) to study the cube’s engineering system to determine its level of power in traveling on microgravity surfaces. Mars’ moon Phobos was given as an example.
The innate urge to wander has been an advantageous facet of our species for millennia. With the help of advanced robotics and A.I., our already extended reach into the cosmos will soon become commonplace beyond fathomable measures. Soon man won’t be the only intelligent species traveling the universe, but subsequently those of our own creation.
With NASA’s cube hybrids, the prospect of a collective unit of spacefaring robots grows closer by the day. Imagine an automated collective traversing in sync beyond the confines of our own galaxy, operating in hive mind similar to the Borg, but instead with the goal in mind of mere exploration, study, and curiosity. Don’t believe that’s possible? Well, Harvard’s Kilobot swarm is set out to prove otherwise!