Sure, the Navy usually works to keep the world's waterways open for business. But for decades, the Spacecraft Engineering Department at the Naval Research Laboratory has been the outlet for its more celestial ambitions. The 1958 Vanguard satellite -- the fourth object mankind launched into space -- was one of theirs.
These days, the Spacecraft Engineering Department works closely with NASA and the Pentagon futurists at Darpa on the grabbier end of outer-space science projects. As in literally grabby: "Ninety-nine percent of our focus is robotic arms," says space roboticist Greg Scott.
Those mechanized arms are designed to perform maintenance tasks on space hardware, and even help the Navy down here on earth. But some of Scott's other space projects involve "some pretty ridiculous science," Scott tells Danger Room -- like these robotic astronauts.
Scott didn't use many components for his metabolizing machine. He got a pure culture of a single-strand microbe called Geobacter sulfurreducens. Then he got a fuel cell and a capacitor. Finally, to use as his robot, he bought a $10 toy robotic insect called a Hexbug. When Scott hooked everything together, he got his microbe culture hopped up on sugar. Sure enough, its digestion discharged hydrogen ions. The ions permeated the membrane in the fuel cell, and the equivalent electron freed through the process was captured in the capacitor -- and once the capacitor released its energy, it powered the toy's motor. By the middle of the year, Scott got his Hexbug running for up to 14 seconds.
Actually, I'm not. Salami has been used before to make a working rocket, particularly speaking about the MythBusters episode where they made a hybrid rocket with nitrous oxide as the oxidizer and salami as the fuel. It's probably more expensive than sugar, but I thought I'd make the reference anyway to see if anyone got it.