Nanosensors and Nanorobots for Space Travel and Communication - dummies

Nanosensors and Nanorobots for Space Travel and Communication

By Earl Boysen, Nancy C. Muir, Desiree Dudley, Christine Peterson

Researchers are exploring the use of nanosensors in robots. These robots can be very small and grouped to create autonomous nanotechnology swarms, or ANTS. ANTS could change their shape and move over uneven ground or even form themselves into solar sails.

TETwalker robot looks like a tetrahedron (a pyramid with three sides and a base). [Credit: Courtesy
Credit: Courtesy of NASA
TETwalker robot looks like a tetrahedron (a pyramid with three sides and a base).

Make robots smaller with nanotechnology

To make the robots in swarms smaller, researchers are exploring the use of nano electromechanical systems, or NEMS, instead of motors. Using nanotubes helps make the robots not only smaller but also more flexible. Because struts made of metal tape and nanotubes are retractable, the robot can shrink until all its nodes touch.

Researchers are also exploring the use of artificial intelligence to help the robotic nanotechnology swarms move around and work together with other swarms to essentially make decisions about a swarm’s operation. The system could learn about and adapt to its environment, helping it to survive and to provide us with better data about other planets.

One scenario could involve a swarm of robots sensing something of interest on another planet and then forming themselves into an antenna to communicate the finding back to Earth.

Sail through space with lightweight solar sails

After you have launched into orbit, you can use nanotechnology to reduce the rocket fuel needed to travel to the moon or planets. Just as sailboats are propelled by wind while on the seas, spaceships can be propelled through space by light from the sun reflected off solar sails. Use of solar sails could mean that the only fuel required would be during liftoff, docking, and landing.

However, solar sails will have to be very large, spreading out for kilometers, and very thin to keep their weight low. That’s where nanotechnology enters the picture. Folks at the University of Texas have used carbon nanotubes to make thin, lightweight sheets that may replace the polymer sheets that researchers have experimented with to date.

At this point, NASA has built a small solar sail to test the mechanism for unfurling the sail in orbit. Although details still need to be worked out (such as how to unfurl a thin, fragile sail in orbit, along with the continual struggle to reduce weight), this method has great potential for reducing the amount of fuel needed to travel between planets.