NASA is designing astounding shapeshifter robots straight out of science fiction to explore Saturn’s moons. Titan is the ideal destination.

NASA is taking exploration to another level. The space agency’s shapeshifting concept includes mini-robots that can roll, fly, float and swim, then morph into a single machine.

NASA’s Cassini mission flew by Titan over a hundred times, discovering a world surprisingly similar to Earth. The spacecraft even carried a probe — the European Huygens probe — that landed on Titan’s surface for the first and only time ever.

The Huygens probe found a liquid cycle like our own planet. However, the liquid water, the rain, lakes, and rivers there are flowing methane and ethane rather than the water we have on Earth.

The moon’s hazy atmosphere could also conceal caves – or even icy volcanoes that spew ammonia or water instead of magma.

“We have very limited information about the composition of the surface. Rocky terrain, methane lakes, cryovolcanoes – we potentially have all of these, but we don’t know for certain,” said JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha. “So we thought about how to create a system that is versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket.”

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Engineers are testing the concept using a 3D-printed prototype in a robotics yard at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

The concept could include 12 robots that can fly or swim, exploring caves and oceans and going where no other robots have gone before. NASA calls them cobots and each one has a propeller. These cobots could come together automatically, without anyone from Earth sending commands, to form into a rolling sphere, fly independently or even create a daisy chain while exploring a cave.

The current prototype looks more like a semi-autonomous hamster wheel with a drone at the center. It can split and form two flying drones.

Shapeshifter’s current prototype is tested in the robotics yard of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Shapeshifter is one of several projects funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program. The program tests far-out ideas that could be useful for space exploration in a few decades. Scientists can deploy these machines to several solar system destinations. But Saturn’s moon Titan is, so far, an ideal destination.

The concept will be submitted in 2020 for the Phase II’s selection process, with the team’s hopes of one day exploring Titan.

However, the next mission will be a drone lander, the Dragonfly, which will set off for Titan in 2026. Dragonfly is NASA’s first rotorcraft lander.

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