Today’s robotic space missions take careful steps to avoid carrying tiny bacterial life from Earth that could contaminate the surface of Mars or other planets. That may all change if a NASA-funded effort can harness microbes as an almost endless power source for the next generation of robotic explorers.
Such microbial fuel cells could power space robots almost indefinitely, as long as their bacteria have the tiny amounts of food needed to stay alive and create electricity through their chemical reactions. That would offer an alternative to space missions that rely upon either nuclear or solar power for their batteries — NASA’s Spirit Mars rover was officially declared dead last May after the Red Planet’s harsh winter deprived it of sunlight for its solar panels.
Whether you’re looking at satellites or planetary explorers, to have a power system that’s not reliant on the sun of the solar system, day or night cycles, and hazardous materials such as nuclear or other harsh chemicals, means you really open a lot of doors for expanding the duration of scientific missions,” said Gregory Scott, a space robotics engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
The microbial fuel cells won’t power huge robots such as NASA’s car-size Curiosity rover in the near future, even if the experimental technology might eventually scale up to do so. Instead, they would trickle small amounts of electricity that can slowly charge a battery until enough energy exists to power a scientific instrument or move a tiny robot.
That process could ideally keep almost any small space mission going for as long as necessary…..
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