August 16, 2019

In the first installment of this series, we looked at the impact of some famous projects — Apollo, Voyager and Project Diana — that shaped technology for decades to come.

In this piece, we’re looking at some current-day missions that are pushing engineering boundaries, resulting either in new technologies or new applications of existing ones.

Toughening Up Force Sensors

As questions of Mars’ potential to sustain life continue to grow, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is preparing the next Mars rover.

The Mars 2020 rover will boast a number of significant improvements over previous rovers (like Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity), the primary one being its robotic arm, which was recently detailed by IEEE Spectrum. The arm is responsible for taking surface samples of rock and soil, which could be crucial in building our understanding of the environment.

While many aspects of the arm are achievements in themselves, one specific development has been an improved force sensor.

Matt Robinson is an engineer on the project who spoke with IEEE Spectrum: “When you’re talking about actually acquiring samples, it’s not a matter of just placing the tool—you also have to apply forces to the environment. And once you start doing that, you really need a force sensor to protect you, and also to determine how much load to apply.

“On Mars, we’re talking about an environment where the temperature can vary 100 degrees Celsius over the course of the day, so it’s very challenging thermally. With force sensing for instance, that’s a major problem. Force sensors aren’t typically designed to operate or even survive in temperature ranges that we’re talking about. So a lot of effort has to go into force sensor design and testing.”

These robust force sensors could find their way into other, new applications that involve extreme environments, like power plants.

Guidance System in a Box

If a concerted effort were made to establish a more consistent human presence on the moon, there would be a number of technical challenges still to sort out.

One of them is our ability to precisely land on the lunar surface — Apollo 11 overshot its landing rather significantly, and there’s no compass or GPS for the moon to make it easy now, either. That means landers will need to carry all the sensors and computers they need to land safely.

A Pittsburgh-based startup is up to the challenge  Their product is a “brick-size unit” that can be attached to any spacecraft, allowing it to land within 100 meters of its target.

The innovation here involves applying learnings from facial detection algorithms. IEEE Spectrum describes it like this: “The sensor will take a several-megapixel image of the lunar surface every second or so as the lander approaches. Algorithms akin to those for facial recognition will spot unique features in the images, comparing them with stored maps to calculate lunar coordinates and orientation.”

Channeled Cooling

Technologists can also produce great results by implementing existing technologies into never-before-seen applications.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory launched a solar probe last August that’s getting closer to the sun than any probe before. The previous record was set in 1976, at 43 million km – the Parker Solar Probe, by contrast, is only 6 million km away from it.

To withstand the extreme UV rays at that proximity, the team mounted the solar panels to titanium sheets with narrow channels that carry cooling water.

In the article, four of the engineers who worked on the project describe it this way: “It’s not unlike the system used to keep the engine in your car from overheating. The cooling system on the Parker probe doesn’t use antifreeze, though. It uses ordinary deionized water, just as you might use in a steam iron. And just like the cooling system in your car, the system is pressurized to prevent the cooling fluid from boiling at high temperatures.”

Drawing inspiration from these existing technologies is, in turn, allowing us to get measurements we’ve never had before about the sun’s coronal heating.

For more about the overlap between technologies and the effect they’ve had on our exploration of space and Earth alike, visit our special feature Space Exploration, Technology and Our Lives.


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