Penelope Boston and Steven Dubowsky have received a grant from NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts to work on tiny hopping robots. An array of the microbots could be deployed on Mars, coordinating with one another like a swarm of insects to search for life below the surface of the planet.

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The spheres would store up muscle energy, and then boink themselves off in various directions.

The researchers have calculated that about a thousand of the robots could be packed into a payload mass the size of one of the current Mars Exploration Rovers. That would give them the flexibility to suffer the loss of a large percentage of the units and still have a network that could be doing recon and sensing, imaging, and perhaps even some other science functions.

A fleet of these little spheres would be sent to some promising landing site, exiting from the lander and then making their way over to some subsurface or other hazardous terrain, where they deploy themselves as a network. They create a cellular communication network, on a node-to-node basis.

Some of the units could be fitted with magnification capability, so one could look at the textures of the materials that they are landing on. Some would also have chemical sensors to sniff and sense the chemical environment.

Via robots < Universe Today.

Couldn't help but think of this 2001 article about an inflatable, two-story tall beach ball. Equipped with scientific instruments, the "tumbleweed ball" conceived by JPL researchers could potentially explore vast tracts of Mars terrain, blown by the wind.

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A scientific payload, carrying instruments such as magnetometers or water-seeking radar, would be held in place by tension cords at the tumbleweed's center. Cameras mounted inside the ball would peer out at the local terrain. When scientists identify a promising spot and want the tumbleweed to put down roots and sit for a spell, the ball could be partially deflated. Then, when it's time to move along again, the ball could be reinflated.

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The best way to deal with a killer asteroid hurtling towards Earth could be a "gravity tractor".

Two NASA astronauts, gently mocking the solution offered in Armageddon have come up with a plan to pull asteroids off course. Dr Edward Lu and Dr Stanley Love propose that a rocket be launched into space, effectively to act as a giant magnet.

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The gravity tractor would hover alongside the asteroid, with its thrusters pointing outwards so the exhaust does not affect the surface. The tractor would then pull the asteroid off course, merely using the gravitational pull between the two bodies.

The scientists calculate that, with sufficient warning, a 20 tonne gravity tractor could safely deflect an asteroid 200 metres across in about a year of towing.

"By using gravity as your tow line, you can sidle up to an asteroid. Maintain it for a year and that should give it enough nudge to miss the earth 20 years later," Love adds.

Via ABC.

Small robots designed by University of Nebraska researchers (see previous post) may allow doctors on Earth to do surgery on patients in space. The tiny, wheeled robots, which are as wide as a lipstick case, can be slipped into small incisions and computer-controlled by surgeons.

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Some robots are equipped with cameras and lights and can send back views of affected areas to surgeons. Others have surgical tools attached that can maneuver inside the body. Because several robots can be inserted through one incision, they could reduce the amount and size of cuts needed for surgery.

The robots may be also helpful on battlefields as they could enable surgeons in other places to work on injured soldiers on the front line.

A robot capable of doing biopsies is in the works and another is being designed that can be inserted into a person's stomach via the esophagus.

Via Terra Nova. Video on the University website.

"We need to design some pretty revolutionary spacesuits if we're really going to realize human exploration of other [planetary] bodies," says Dava Newman, at MIT. Together with her team, she's trying to build the BioSuit, a form-fitting "second skin," designed for lunar and Martian living.

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A primary function of a spacesuit is to maintain air pressure in the airless vacuum of space or the sparse atmosphere of Mars. In the late 1960s, Paul Webb created a spacesuit that featured six layers of elastic that pressed the body to mimic pressure. The design was lighter and provided greater range of motion than the current "gas bag." Webb tested the suit and its physiological effects and wrote a report in 1971 that said the idea was viable and safe. But NASA didn't bite.

Newman took up the challenge. The proposed BioSuit will consist of a skintight body suit, a hard torso and backpack for life-support systems and equipment, and a domed helmet.

Newman's team has made several lower-leg prototypes, including one of nylon-spandex, one of elastic wrapped like bandage, and another of pressurized foam painted with layers of urethane.

Ultimately, the BioSuit must maintain fairly constant pressure over the whole body as it moves.

Putting on a BioSuit might feel a bit like squeezing into a wetsuit several sizes too small. The researchers are looking to metals and polymers that expand, contract, or change their properties in response to heat or electricity. Most of these technologies exist, but are too weak or power-hungry to use yet.

Image gallery.

Via USA Today.

Related: women in spacesuit, Spray-on spacesuits, Animal Astronauts, Soviet space monkey pants on eBay.

Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, the space tourism firm that arranged Gregory Olsen's voyage has teamed up with Joshua Piven, co-author of "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" to write The Space Tourist's Handbook.

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The book covers destinations, modes of travel, accommodations, sightseeing, meals and costs.

The packages are rated on three criteria: mission time, travel and training time, and cost, which can range from one dollar sign (symbolizing a trip costing less than $10,000) to five dollar signs (standing for a trip that costs more than $1 million.)

Since the only ship currently offering tourists passage to the International Space Station is the Russian Soyuz, the handbook also includes a helpful list of phonetic Russian phrases such as Olya che-VOH EH-tah KNOHP-ka? ("What does this button do?")

There are also tips and etiquette for everything from sleeping to eating to bathing to using the vacuum toilets (Lesson 1: Make sure there is a tight seal between your body and the toilet seat.)

Details in DesMoines Register. Found in France2 info.

NASA engineers have tested out a prototype unmanned sailplane that can detect and use rising air thermals to gain altitude. Once it finds a thermal, it turs off its engine and circles to stay within the updraft. NASA hopes to develop techniques for using thermals that could extend the range of unmanned aerial vehicles that often have very limited fuel.

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During the tests the 14-foot-wingspan model added 60 minutes to its endurance by autonomous thermal soaring.

"The flights demonstrated a small unmanned vehicle can mimic birds and exploit the free energy that exists in the atmosphere," said NASA aerospace engineer Michael Allen.

Small, portable, unpiloted, long-endurance vehicles could fulfill a number of observation roles including forest fire monitoring, traffic control, search and rescue.

Via Universe Today. Press release. Also in the Raw Feed. Picture Nasa.

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