The next Mars rover or asteroid expedition might incorporate a bit of technology inspired by the dentition of a creature found here on earth: the sea urchin. NASA hasn't announced plans to send any spiny critters to space, but rather a new excavation tool that capitalizes on the strength, durability and versatility of the animal's mouth organ. Currently in development at UC San Diego's school of engineering, the apparatus shows promise for performing a wide range of functions, from digging up loose sand and gravel to boring through rock.
The reason engineers were inspired by the sea urchin's mouth goes all the way back to the early research of Aristotle, who first dissected and described the apparatus, which is nicknamed "Aristotle's Lantern." The organ houses an intricate lattice of muscles connected to five curved, triangular teeth capable of closing to form a dome shape. The specialized arrangement and geometry of the teeth along with their actuating muscles means that the organ can perform diverse functions, from digging and scraping to cutting, chewing and boring through rock. Indeed, a colony of sea urchins can quickly destroy an entire kelp forest by eroding the holdfast structures used to anchor the algae.
Furthermore, the strength-to-weight ratio of the apparatus is highly favorable, especially in a field where every pound of matter costs $10,000 to lift into space. Features such as a reinforced "keel" on each tooth decreases load stress by 16 percent, while only adding 4 percent more mass. The researchers hope that the finished instrument will be used to retrieve surface samples of asteroids, comets, and other planets (such as Mars).
The design for the project was accomplished with the help of a CT scan and a 3D printer, which helped researchers visualize the structure and examine how the different components direct the forces involved. This project is part of a larger field of "biomimetics," the engineering of materials inspired by biologic structures. The simplest example of biomimetics would be Velcro, inspired by the microscopic hooks found on burrs. More complex structures, such as the threads used by mussels to adhere to rocks are also being investigated for possible dental applications. These threads are formed in an aqueous environment and must adhere strongly enough to prevent the mussel from being torn from the rocks, so might inspire a design addressing the challenges of creating durable, waterproof adhesives.
From the Deep Sea to Deep Space: Sea Urchin's Teeth Inspire New Design for Space Exploration Device. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.newswise.com/articles/from-the-deep-sea-to-deep-space-sea-urchin-s-teeth-inspire-new-design-for-space-exploration-device
Sea Urchin's Teeth Inspire New Design for Space Exploration Device. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160502161120.htm
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