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NASA is working on a unique concept called the Shapeshifter which aims to develop shape-shifting robots that will be sent to explore planets and moons within our Solar System in the future.

Shapeshifter is a collection of  up to 12 mini robots, named ‘Cobots’ that can form a single big robot or they might even work independently as per the given situation. It will reach places where other robots have not reached yet. Each of the mini robots will be equipped with a small propeller, according to reports. 

In a press release, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained, “Once separated, the two halves rise on small propellers, effectively becoming flying drones for aerial exploration. These 3D-printed parts are only the beginning; the team imagines a series of up to 12 robots that could transform into a swimming probe or a team of cave explorers.”

 A designated team is testing a 3D-printed prototype of this concept at the US space agency’s NASA’s JPL in Pasadena, California, a NASA statement said.

JPL Principal Investigator Ali Agha visualises the Shapeshifter concept as a mission to Titan, one of the prominent moons of Saturn that is known for having liquid methane on the surface. The Shapeshifter concept might actually explore the moon and look for possible ice volcanoes or caves that are hidden in the dense atmosphere of Titan.

He said, “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. 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.”

Agha and his co-investigators came up with the concept of using cobots to explore Titan. Their ultimate vision includes using a lander, like the Huygens Probe deployed by the Cassini spacecraft as it passed by Titan, to send their cobots on the said moon.

Because of Titan’s environment, the researchers believe that the cobots could easily lift a lander and move it to different locations.

 Jason Hofgartner, the JPL lead scientist for the Shapeshifter project, said, “It is often the case that some of the hardest places to get to are the most scientifically interesting because maybe they’re the youngest, or they’re in an area that was not well characterized from orbit. Shapeshifter’s remarkable versatility enables access to all of these scientifically compelling places.”

The Shapeshifter concept will get submitted to NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase II selection process in 2020. If selected, it could take many more years until the Shapeshifter gets to visit moons like Titan.

NASA’s next mission to Titan is going to be Dragonfly, which is the first rotorcraft lander by the space agency. It is scheduled to be launched in 2026.

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