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Gizmorama - June 26, 2017

Good Morning,

A new robotic exploration device has been developed and it could prove helpful with maintenance on the space station and future missions to the moon. It's a snake robot! I hope astronauts aren't afraid of snakes.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*- Snake robot could help maintain space station, explore moon -*

Scientists at SINTEF, a research institute in Norway, are working on designs for a snake robot that could one day carry out maintenance missions on the space station and explore lava tubes on the moon.

The research is being funded by the European Space Agency, which is intent on establishing an international settlement on the moon. ESA scientists suggest lava tubes, underground tunnels were lava once flowed, could offer a natural structure to build a settlement in and around.

An autonomous robot capable of exploring underground chambers could be helpful in preparing for such an ambitious project.

ESA also foresees a comet-exploration role for the snake robot. The space agency attempted to put a lander on the surface of the comet 67P/Tsjurjumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. The mission was partially successful, but the Philae lander took a hard bounce off the comet's surface, sending it off course and into a dark valley where communication was difficult and its solar panels couldn't recharge its batteries.

A smaller, slimmer lander design -- like a snake -- could ensure a smoother entry and greater maneuverability on the next comet exploration mission.

"There is pretty much no gravity on a comet. If you try to walk on the surface, you could be thrown into space," Aksel Transeth, SINTEF researcher, said in a news release. "So we have to find ways in which snake robots can move around on a comet while at the same time keeping themselves fixed on the surface."

New moon and comet missions may be several years away, but a snake robot could be used to assist with maintenance on the International Space Station tomorrow. If a robot could assume some of the ISS astronauts' maintenance and repair duties, they could spend more time conducting science experiments.

One of the main challenges facing SINTEF scientists, as they figure out how to build a snake robot, is ensuring the robot can navigate a microgravity environment.

"We believe that we can design a robot that can hold on, roll itself up and then extend its body in order to reach new contact points," said Transeth. "Moreover, we believe that it can creep in among equipment components on the ISS and use equipment surfaces to gain traction in order to keep moving forward -- much in the same way as real snakes do in the wild."

In the next year, NASA is scheduled to send three small robots named Astrobee to the space station. The miniature probe will help astronauts with a variety of tasks. Researchers at SINTEF hope the successes and failures of the project will information their efforts to build a similarly helpful snake robot.

*-- Scientists 3D-print graphene foam, a first --*

A team of researchers from Texas and China have managed to create graphene foam using a 3D printer. The production method could eventually yield commercial quantities of the material.

Graphene's benefits have been well-documented by material scientists. The atomically thin carbon sheets are exceptionally strong, flexible and conductive. But producing graphene in bulk has proven difficult, limiting its potential use in commercial technologies -- whether they be medical implants or smartphones.

Scientists at Rice University and China's Tianjin University, however, have found a way to turn nongraphene starting materials into graphene foam using a 3D printer. Researchers detailed their breakthrough in the journal journal ACS Nano.

"This study is a first of its kind," Rice chemist James Tour said in a news release.

The latest breakthrough builds on previous research conducted at Rice. In 2016, scientists converted powdered sugar and nickel into 3D graphene foam using lasers. Earlier this year, researchers bolstered the foam's strength by adding carbon nanotubes to the composite material.

The latest method also starts with powdered sugar and nickel. No molds or high temperatures are needed. The new technique relies on a laser-powered 3D printer.

The laser sinters the powder, converting the grains into a solid composite. Layer by layer, the laser converts powder into solid form, with more powder added atop each completed layer. The 2D graphene layers form a 3D foam block the size of a fingertip.

The laser melts the sugar and the nickel acts as catalyst, setting off a chain reaction that yields graphene after the laser moves on to melt neighboring powder particles.

The graphene foam formed by the commercially available CO2 laser features large pores and a low density. Scientists say the powder ratio can be altered to change the foam's pore size.

"The 3D graphene foams prepared by our method show promise for applications that require rapid prototyping and manufacturing of 3D carbon materials, including energy storage, damping and sound absorption," said Rice grad student Yilun Li.


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