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ETH Zurich's 'SpaceHopper' robot leaps towards exploring celestial bodies

In a remarkable feat of innovation, a team of students from ETH Zurich has been tirelessly working on a groundbreaking robot designed to navigate the low-gravity environments of asteroids and moons. Dubbed the "SpaceHopper," this unique creation is paving the way for a new era of space exploration, where even the smallest celestial bodies could be within our reach.



The genesis of the SpaceHopper project can be traced back 2.5 years ago when it was conceived as a focus project for Bachelor's degree students. However, the promise and potential of this endeavor were too significant to be confined to a single academic exercise. Today, the project has evolved into a full-fledged research initiative, with five Master's degree students and one doctoral student dedicating their efforts to refining and testing this extraordinary robot.

The SpaceHopper's unconventional design immediately catches the eye – a triangular prism with three legs sprouting from its corners, each leg boasting three degrees of freedom. This deliberate configuration not only lends the robot a striking appearance but also serves a crucial purpose: it ensures that SpaceHopper lacks a preferred orientation, making locomotion on low-gravity celestial bodies easier and more efficient.

But it's the robot's unique mode of transportation that truly sets it apart. The SpaceHopper team has broken down its locomotion method into six distinct movement capabilities, each designed to ensure reliable and fast travel on an asteroid or moon. These capabilities include hopping to traverse large distances, attitude control during flight, controlled landing at a target point, precise short-distance locomotion, the ability to carry a scientific payload, and self-righting after landing.

At the heart of this innovative approach lies the power of SpaceHopper's nine motors, strategically located in its legs. By harnessing the combined force of these motors, the robot can execute a powerful and precise takeoff, allowing it to cover vast distances or even hop over obstacles with ease. While in flight, the robot's legs serve as a built-in reorientation system, enabling it to adjust its attitude without the need for flywheels, ensuring a controlled landing on its feet every time. And upon touching down, SpaceHopper's feet provide a soft, cushioned landing, preventing any uncontrolled bouncing in the low-gravity environment.

The potential applications of the SpaceHopper extend far beyond mere scientific curiosity. These small celestial bodies, once considered too difficult to explore, could harbor valuable mineral resources that are rare on Earth. Moreover, their study could unlock crucial insights into the formation of our universe, shedding light on the mysteries that have long captivated astronomers and cosmologists alike.

To further refine and test the SpaceHopper's capabilities, the team has embarked on a Parabolic Flight Testing Campaign with the support of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Petri Program. This program offers practical experience and training to complement the students' university work. During these parabolic flights, also known as "zero-gravity flights," a special plane executes roller-coaster-like maneuvers to create brief moments of weightlessness, typically lasting 20-30 seconds. In these simulated space-like conditions, the team has already witnessed the SpaceHopper demonstrate its ability to reorient itself using only its legs, as well as showcasing some remarkable jumping capabilities.

As the project continues to make strides, the excitement surrounding the SpaceHopper's potential grows. With each successful test and refinement, the dream of exploring the smallest and most elusive celestial bodies moves closer to reality. And at the forefront of this groundbreaking endeavor are the ambitious and innovative students of ETH Zurich, whose unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of space exploration is paving the way for a future where no celestial body is out of reach.

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