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Synthetic muscle that could power robot limbs faces space test

A synthetic muscle that could be used to power prosthetic limbs, or on robots on a deep space mission, will be carried to the International Space Station today for tests in a low gravity environment.

Lenore Rasmussen developed the material at RAS Labs and has worked closely with researchers and engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

The synthetic muscle can adhere to metal and is suitable for deep space travel due to its radiation resistance.

“Based on the good results we had on planet Earth, the next step is to see how it behaves in a space environment,” said Charles Gentile, a PPPL engineer who has worked closely with Rasmussen. “From there the next step might be to use it on a mission to Mars.”

The “muscle” is a gel-like material called an electroactive polymer that can potentially mimic human movement because it can expand and contract to simulate the movement of muscles.

“We can’t explore space without robots,” Rasmussen said. “Humans can only withstand a certain amount of radiation so that limits the time that people can be in space, whereas robots particularly if they’re radiation-resistant can be up there for long periods of time without being replaced.”

The material will be kept in a zero gravity storage rack in the U.S. National Laboratory on the space station for 90 days. The astronauts will photograph the materials every three weeks. When the material returns to Earth in July, it will be tested and compared with identical materials that remained on Earth.

Rasmussen is also exploring whether the material could be used as a prosthetic liner.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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