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Posted on September 1st, 2015

Out of This World – Game Changers

NASA is on the hunt for alternative solutions to make their existing systems more efficient, from airplanes to batteries to rocket fuel. They recently selected two proposals for developing a better alternative to battery systems that are used throughout NASA and the space program. With deep space exploration on the horizon, there is a push for energy sources that are lighter, higher energy and cheaper. Batteries that are lighter, create more energy and take up less space will reduce the amount of fuel necessary to launch spacecraft, and free up valuable real estate. More efficient batteries will extend the life of space missions, from satellites in orbit, zipping through space, landing on comets and planets or those propelling humans to the edge of the galaxy.

As part of the Game Changing Development (GCD) program, NASA selected two proposals and awarded further funding, $1 million dollars for engineering hardware. The winners have already completed component tests and analysis on their battery designs. The next phase is prototype development and the award is $2 million. With this new program, NASA hopes to have new battery designs that you can bet will eventually end up in the public sphere.

With advancements in battery technology, NASA is also pushing for new designs in electric-powered planes. They are in the process of proving the concept to sell it to industry leaders, claiming that electric-powered planes use three to five times less energy at cruising speeds. With current technology, this is only feasible on shorter, commuter flights. A break through in battery technology would propel electric planes even further into the mainstream.

Now you’ve seen Spiderman climb walls and assassins use suction cups to climb up buildings, but some of the stickiest infiltrators are found in nature. Like a gecko for example. Their tiny feet carry them over uneven and vertical surfaces with little effort. NASA wants to harness this capability to create stickiness without leaving behind a residue. A gecko gets its stickiness from van der Waals forces where by positively charged particles are attracted to negatively charged particles in neighboring molecules. Since they are not evenly distributed, the two molecules attract each other and stick together. The tiny hairs on the geckos’ feet lets them walk up walls using this electrical force. NASA is working on using this same force to create grippers for use on spacecraft, this would replace more permanent substances like Velcro.

The grippers NASA developed can carry more than 35 pounds of weight; a test in microgravity successfully grappled 270 pounds. Researchers even had the thrilling job of testing the stickiness of the grippers after repeatedly engaging and disengaging the stickiness more than 30,000 times. After what must have been hours of fun, the grippers still gripped strong. This adhesive technology is being tested on LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot). Like a mechanical gecko, it is meant to climb outside the International Space Station in microgravity, doing repairs and inspections without damaging the surface. Researchers imagine they could someday use this technology to extend a sticky hand to pick up satellites, collect space trash or just give us a giant thumbs up!

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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