A robot is defined as a self-controlled device consisting of electronic, electrical, or mechanical units that can autonomously perform the same functions as a human. In this article, the use of robots in space is explored.
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Using a robot in space is ideal for carrying out vital roles in exploring the hostile environment of outer space. Besides the Earth, the moon is the only celestial body humans have set foot on.
Robots in Space: An Introduction
Recent advances regarding robots in space are making it possible for robotic missions to reach different areas of our solar system faster and gather an unprecedented amount of data. Robots do not get tired, can operate in the vacuum of space and do not get bored or distracted, making them ideal for space exploration.
All robots in space generally have the same components, including a power supply, controller, actuators, sensors and a communication unit (usually radio.)
Sensors collect information about the robot in space and its environment; the controller processes the information and then transmits the command signals to the actuators. The actuators, in turn, convert the signals and execute the operation.
Due to the distances involved in space exploration, a robot in space is able to operate autonomously as real-time control by operators back at mission control is not possible. Rovers, for example, can utilize sensors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to identify and overcome potential obstacles such as craters and cliffs.
Types of Robots in Space
The two main types of robots in space can be classified as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and remote manipulator systems (RMSs.)
ROVs include rovers, which explore the surface of celestial bodies, landers operated from a stationary point, and unmanned spacecraft such as satellites and probes. Although these devices are remote, some degree of control is performed by human operators at mission control on Earth. In the future, humans could control robots in space from stations orbiting the moon, for example.
An RMS is commonly used in manufacturing and industry. Essentially, it is a robotic arm that can articulate as well as a human limb, and can be manually controlled or operated remotely. RMS’s have been used extensively in space exploration, such as on shuttles and the International Space Station, to perform mission-critical tasks.
CHASING A COMET - The Rosetta Mission
Video Credit: German Aerospace Center, DLR
History of Unmanned Robots in Space
The history of robots in space exploration extends over the past six decades. From 1966 to 1968, a series of Surveyor spacecraft were sent to the moon. Remote control systems were utilized to send signals back to Earth, and analyze samples collected by an extendable claw.
The first robot in space to investigate an extra-terrestrial region was the Soviet Lunokhod 1 lunar rover. This rover landed on the surface of the moon in 1970, and it was remote-controlled from Earth. One of the essential functions of the use of this robot in space was its ability to autonomously detect events and wait until it received a signal.
Deep space probes are another example of semi-autonomous ROVs. For instance, Voyager 2, which was launched in 1977, is programmed to automatically adjust its operations without human interaction. The probe was launched to study the outer planets and interstellar space and is still in operation as of 2023.
Recent Unmanned Missions Involving Robots in Space
One cutting-edge use of an unmanned robot in space is NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, launched in 2007 to investigate the giant protoplanet Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres.
Dawn was the first mission to orbit an object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the only spacecraft ever to orbit two destinations beyond Earth. Dawn orbited Vesta in 2011-12 and arrived at Ceres in 2015. The mission ended in 2018.
Dawn was the first robot in space to use ion propulsion, an extremely efficient propulsion system. The ion propulsion system provided around 2,000 days of thrust over the course of the mission.
Another ground-breaking use of robots in space is the Rosetta spacecraft, a 10 year mission launched in 2004 to intercept a comet and land a probe on it.
The mission would take Rosetta into deep space, over five times the Earth’s distance from the Sun. This mission achieved many historic firsts, such as being the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus and take images and the first touchdown on a comet.
Upon reaching the comet, the Philae lander unexpectedly bounced twice before landing and came to a stop in the shadow of a cliff, losing solar power. Rosetta made a final planned plunge into the comet as it headed out of the solar system, the mission providing pioneering information on the composition of comets.
The Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) concept represents an innovative use of space robots to perform otherwise extremely difficult and resource-intensive mission-critical roles. The idea behind this project is to use an orbital vehicle to perform in-orbit repairs of other spacecraft, extending their service life without the need for humans.
MEV-1 was launched in 2019 to service Intelsat-901, with the mission expected to end in 2025. MEV-2, launched in 2020, attached to Intelsat 10-02 on April 12, 2021. Another project with the same goals is Orbital Express, a DARPA-sponsored mission.
The increasing number of rovers on Mars, such as NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rover, attest to the growing importance of robots in space, paving the way for future manned missions and colonization efforts by gathering crucial data on the Martian surface and atmosphere.
Robots in Space: Mori3
Innovative projects and missions involving robots in space are currently in development, utilizing advanced technologies which will benefit future missions to the Moon, Mars, and the outer planets and moons.
One particularly notable project is Mori3, a Swiss robot that has advanced shape-changing abilities which will allow it to be configured for a variety of mission critical tasks in multiple environments. Mori3 utilizes a process called polygon meshing, where triangular modules form polygons with different configurations and sizes.
The main benefit of Mori3’s polygon meshing abilities is its versatility. It could be used for tasks such as external repairs, communication, and can be configured for completely new tasks as the need arises. It can also help save payload space, weight, and resources such as fuel by being stored flat on long journeys.
Robots in Space: The Future
Robots are emerging and effective tools in space exploration and types of robots in space include orbiters, rovers, and landers. Robots are widely being used wherever there is a need for better use of tools and data collection in space.
Technologies developed for robots in space have also been employed in many industries, providing innovative solutions for high-performance automobiles, the biomedical field, and consumer products.
The future of deep space exploration, with transit times in the order of decades, will depend on the utilization of advanced technologies for robots in space to take advantage of.
References and Further Reading
Mogg, T (2023) This remarkable shape-shifting robot could one day head to Mars [online] Digital Trends. Available at: https://www.digitaltrends.com/space/shape-shifting-robot-for-space-travel/
Pultarova, T (2020) A new era of space robotics, 36,000km above Earth [online] E&T. Available at: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2020/02/a-new-era-of-space-robotics-36-000km-above-earth/
Sharp, T (2017) Rosetta Spacecraft: To Catch a Comet [online] space.com. Available at: https://www.space.com/24292-rosetta-spacecraft.html
NASA (website) ER4: Robotic Systems Technology Branch [online] nasa.gov. Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/er/er4
This article was updated July 2023.