Shapeshifter, NASA’s morphing robot system, could explore Titan in the future

Researched by engineers at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Shapeshifter is an amphibious robot that fly, roll or swim and could be used to explore terrains of distant worlds, such as Titan. Shapeshifter is a system made of smaller robots, versatile and capable of traversing different types of terrain but also compact enough to launch on a rocket.

Each robot has a small propeller, would be able to move independent of one another to fly along cliffsides of scientific interest or transform into a sphere to roll on flat surfaces and conserve energy.

According to JPL Principle Investigator Ali Agha “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.”

The engineers of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory collaborated with researchers from Stanford and Cornell universities and hope that Shapeshifter will go in the future on a mission to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew by Titan over one hundred times, mapping its surface for future missions. Cassini discovered a world surprisingly similar to Earth, but with key differences: Titan’s cold rivers, lakes and rain are made of liquid methane and ethane. Titan could also conceal caves – or even icy volcanoes. Ali Agha’s ultimate vision includes a lander like the European Space Agency’s Huygens Probe, which touched down on Titan after being deployed via parachute by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

The next NASA mission to Titan will be Dragonfly, which is scheduled to launch in 2026.

Shapeshifter is part of a NASA early-stage research program and will be submitted in 2020 for the Phase II’s selection process, with the team’s hopes of one day exploring Titan. Even if selected, it could be many more years until Shapeshifter visits a world like Titan.

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NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA Shapeshifter
NASA's Cassini Spacecraft
NASA Dragonfly
NASA Cassini mission
NASA Cassini mission photos and videos