Since April, a synthetic muscle has been floating around in zero-gravity aboard the International Space Station, soaking up space radiation in the name of scientific progress. Researchers have finally announced it would be coming back down to Earth next March — eight months later than originally planned. (Unfortunately, nobody at NASA gave it a name. We will henceforth refer to it as “Apollo”.)
If you’re confused like I was about what the hell is going on here, just stick with me and read carefully.
The synthetic muscle experiment all started with Lenore Rasmussen, a scientist at Ras Labs in Quincy, Massachusetts. With the help of others at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Rasmussen developed a material made that basically contracts in response to an electric current, and expands when given an opposite charge. The goal was to create a muscle-like material that could be used in robots entering unknown or dangerous areas (e.g. nuclear disasters, or pretty much everywhere in outer space). Other scientists are also very interested in testing Apollo out for its potential in prosthetics design and structure fabrication.
Rasmussen has already tested Apollo in certain respects, and has found it/he can withstand temperatures as cold as minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit, to as high as 275 degrees Fahrenheit. So the prospect of sending a muscle-y robot out to another planet or moon for exploration is encouraging. The big unknown, however, is radiation.
Apollo actually holds up remarkably well to gamma ray exposure. But before NASA could actually start using synthetic muscles to build future spacebots, they needed to know how the Apollo would react to space environments. So NASA decided to send up him on a SpaceX cargo resupply mission in the spring, and see how well he performed in the presence of cosmic radiation — a huge problem for human space travel that could be circumvented by using robots.
The initial plan was to keep the Apollo up on the ISS for four months, and then bring him down for material integrity and electroactivity tests. That plan went to hell when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket headed for the ISS blew up in June, setting everything back. In March, when another SpaceX rocket heads up to the ISS, astronauts will send Apollo back for Rasmussen and others to finally study and analyze.
If it turns out Apollo has held up well to cosmic rays, we could see NASA and other roboticists very quickly move forward with developing and testing robots fitted with synthetic muscles. The technology would be a major boon to making the exploration of Mars and other parts of the solar system more possible and cost-efficient, since we wouldn’t have to go to such great lengths to ensure human safety. We just have to wait a few more months for Apollo to come home.