Are Nasa Developing Gearboxes?!
Toyota, Renault, Ford, Audi. NASA?
There are certain names we associate with gearboxes, when we buy our new car we all give at least a bit of thought to the transmission, we might read a review or two.
Are they making gearboxes?
The answer is yes and no – yes they are developing gearboxes; no you’re unlikely to see a NASA transmission in your sporty hatchback any time soon.
However, that isn’t to say that their work in designing gearboxes to work in extreme climates on other planets won’t benefit your standard car transmission at some stage in the future.
NASA’s development work on gearboxes has the core aim of creating a gearbox system that can continue to work during the lunar light and on missions to other plants where temperatures can drop to -260 degrees Fahrenheit.
Their scientific equipment needs to take samples, do readings, collect information – much of this requires a gearing system as there are robotic arms to be moved, antennas to rotate into position, the motion of the vehicle itself across the planet or lunar floor.
To function in extreme conditions, gearboxes are typically heated – after heating a lubricant helps the gears function and prevents the steel from becoming brittle and breaking.
However, the creation of this heat requires energy and, at extreme low temperatures, that energy is a commodity in short supply.
NASA is therefore creating an unheated gearbox, their Bulk Metallic Glass Gears (BMGG) project team making a material made of ‘metallic glass’ that has the same functionality but does require the energy to provide heat.
The planned benefit is that this will enable machinery to work for longer, to work in conditions it would otherwise have been prohibitive and also to allow for extra scientific equipment to be utilised. It is also worth noting that night is a long time on some planets and on the Moon – being able to operate when there is no light means not having to wait for days, weeks in some cases, to perform a scientific test.
Gearboxes That Can Handle Harsh Climates
Testing also means ensuring the new gearbox can survive the challenging conditions faced on any trip into space – for instance bumpy entries and landings.
To simulate this, the gearbox was frozen using liquid nitrogen and then given a stress test – a short, sudden, powerful jolt to simulate the impacts likely to be faced. The motor was then run and, presumably much to NASA’s relief, in each case the motor was found to still be running efficiently.
Speaking to the NASA.gov site, project manager Peter Dillon said: “This is an exciting event as it demonstrates both the mechanical resilience of the bulk metallic glass alloy and the design of the gearbox,” Dillon said. “These gears could help enable potential operations during the lunar night, in permanently shadowed lunar craters, in polar regions on the Moon, and on ocean worlds.”
The tests to date have all been positive, but that isn’t to say the gearbox is set to be sent off into space as part of a mission any time soon. Further testing is required, complete assurance needed that the parts will function as planned – after all, it’s not as if you can just send an engineer out to Jupiter to perform a quick fix.
Luckily on earth, it doesn’t get close to -260 degrees, even if at our base in North West England it can sometimes feel close.
There could, though, still be long-term benefits on planet earth. It may be that machinery on earth that has to operate in extreme conditions could benefit, or it could be that the findings simply help to reduce the energy consumption of machinery in general.
We will watch developments with interest.
To find out more – head to NASA’s site.
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