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Robots in Space: How Technology Helps Us Explore the Solar System

Our Robots in the World series looks at the large and small ways robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence are changing our lives. We’ve already looked at how humans are collaborating with robots in hospitals, in our oceans, and in our homes. 

There are thousands of robots that make space exploration possible. From Sputnik floating around Earth’s atmosphere in 1957 to the Atlantis shuttle bringing our astronauts home. As robots continue to evolve, they are at the forefront of space exploration. Many scientists believe robots, not humans, will make the next great discoveries in space.

Check out a few ways robots are helping with space exploration and paving the way for human innovations.

Robots Work on the International Space Station

Robots already do significant work on the International Space Station. While there are countless sensors and gadgets that help astronauts, robo-astronauts work alongside their human counterparts, completing tasks and making their jobs easier.

Science reporter Elizabeth Howell shares the story of a humanoid robot at the International Space Station, in an article for Space.com. Since 2011, Robonaut 2 has helped complete menial tasks that human space residents can’t do when they’re working on other parts of the station. So far, it can flip switches, has practiced telemedicine, and even acts like a personal assistant.

With special legs that allow it to cling to surfaces in zero gravity, Robonaut 2 might be able to complete space walks in the future according to NASA researchers.

Get to Know Dextre

Working next to Robonaut 2 on the ISS is a Canadian robot called Dextre (formally known as Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator or SPDM). Dextre was recently credited for upgrading the batteries on the orbital outpost, Chris Bergin at NASASpaceFlight.com writes.

Dextre works closely with the Canadarm2, a space station remote manipulator system, along the outer structure. The two offload supplies brought to the ISS, including one pallet delivered by a Japanese cargo craft. These tasks are easier for robots to complete and are safer than conducting space walks.  

Ask for Help from Astrobee

NASA is sending an Astrobee to space in 2018, writes Evan Ackerman at IEEESpectrum. The free-flying robot is a small cube covered in soft bumper material. Using sensors, it is designed to fly around the ISS, helping astronauts with routine tasks and providing additional information to flight controllers on the ground. It is meant to operate autonomously and move around the Space Station in zero gravity.   

The idea to develop personal satellite assistants like Astrobee started as early as 2001, writes

Tony Reichhardt, senior editor at Air & Space. Back then, astronauts were chronically overbooked each day. They didn’t have time to complete their experiments, much less for mundane housekeeping tasks. This is when researchers started developing the idea of creating robotic assistants to make projects easier to complete and to save time.

Robots might not get the fanfare of human astronauts, but they’re essential employees on the ISS.

Robots Repair Each Other With Satellite Maintenance

Outside of the ISS, robots will soon be found completing repair work and communicating with satellites. Matthew Loffhagen at Outer Places reports that The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to send robots to space as early as 2021 to complete minor repair missions.

As more governments and private organizations launch satellites into space, these machines (like any car or computer) need repairs. Sending people to space for minor repair work is costly, so DARPA is focusing on creating a team of “mechanic” robots to work on satellites as they fall into disrepair. In a perfect world, these robots would be autonomous, meaning they can quickly identify the problem and fix it without someone controlling every motion.

DARPA isn’t the only organization doing this. NASA is working to develop its own $127 million space mechanic called Restore-L, which can refuel and relocate satellites in low orbit, Maddie Stone, managing editor at Earther reports. It’s essentially an AAA for broken satellites.

This means that most satellites won’t be left for space junk when they break, as there’s a chance they could be repaired in space and continue their work.

Robot Rovers Help Us Explore Mars

One of the most identifiable space robots is the Mars exploration rover, Curiosity, which has been sending back photos, video, and data for the past five years. In an article for Inverse, Amy Lynn shares some of its top discoveries:

  • Volcanoes, proving that Mars used to be geologically active.
  • Mudstone, proving that there used to be ancient lakes on Mars.
  • Manganese oxide, proving that Mars might have had an oxygen-rich environment at one point.

If this is what robots can discover in five years, imagine what we will know five years from now. Maybe traces of life on Mars?

That very well may be the case. The rover to follow Curiosity in 2020 is being developed to explore the possibility of life on Mars and the potential for human life to visit there, writes Jay Bennett at Popular Mechanics. It will carry seven scientific instruments that search for signs of life, known as biosignatures. While this rover isn’t going to stumble on modern martian colonies, it is going to look for signs of past life, helping scientists learn what Mars was like eons ago.

To learn more about the next Mars rover, check out astrophysicist Ian O’Neill’s article in Seeker on the use of lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) for the next rover. The lidar will shoot through dust particles on Mars and analyze chemicals for organic compounds. This makes it easier to analyze large plumes of dust instead of individual soil samples.  

Cassini and New Horizons: Robots That Wow Us

Other robots have also captured national attention recently and brought space exploration to the forefront of the public mind.

The death of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was the biggest spaceflight story of 2017, Michael Wall at Space.com writes, with Dave Mosher at Business Insider among the space fans who gave a eulogy. The nuclear-powered robot was launched in 1997 to help researchers learn more about Saturn. It reached the planet in 2004 and had been collecting data and taking photos ever since.

Scientists wanted to keep the $3.26-billion mission going, but Cassini was running out of fuel. NASA ended its journey with a 76,000 mph plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, to avoid contaminating the planet’s moons. Even in its death, scientists learned from Cassini as it broadcast its last messages before melting away.

The news beat out stories such as the presidential directive to return astronauts to the moon and Peggy Whitson’s record for the longest total time a US astronaut has spent in space.

New Horizons Showed Us Pluto’s Heart

Along with Cassini, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft continues to pique our interest in learning about space. In 2015, it sent back some of its first photos of the dwarf planet Pluto, providing an in-depth look at the planet’s landscape and colors. The first thing most people pointed out was “Pluto’s heart,” a heart-shaped glacier across half its surface.

What’s most impressive about the New Horizons photos is how far NASA has come in the past few decades. Previously, most people had only ever seen a grainy, gray sphere. Science fans, like CNN’s Amanda Barnett, continue to cover the photos and video sent by New Horizons as it travels beyond the Voyager spacecraft, furthering our knowledge of the universe.

Who Cares About Space Robots, Anyway?

Robots are more than workers, they’re also educators to make people on Earth care more about space exploration. But what’s the point of exploring beyond Earth’s atmosphere and investing in space travel, even as we gain knowledge with these stunning photos of Saturn, Mars, and Pluto?

“The difficult problem with debating the merits of space exploration is the tendency for the two sides to talk past each other,” Daniel DeAngelo writes at StudyBreaks. “A common argument follows that there are more important things that need to be fixed before we spend money on something as frivolous as space travel. Proponents of space exploration on the other hand often consider it such an inherently noble form of scientific pursuit that no justification is needed.”

There are several reasons people should care about space exploration, Lisa Winter at A Plus writes, even if they never have plans to go to the moon or become an astronaut. Research done at the ISS and on Mars helps researchers improve conditions here on Earth in many ways, including:

  • The technology developed for NASA enters the civilian market. From memory foam and cordless vacuums to mammograms, we have space exploration to thank for many modern-day conveniences. Experts estimate that every $1 put into NASA generates $7-14 in the American economy.  
  • Studying other planets helps scientists learn how ours formed, meaning they can develop trends for the future and predict changes more easily.
  • Science unites governments across the world. Instead of representing America alone, we represent Earth, improving international relations and promoting peace.

Most People Support Space Exploration

Regardless on the return on investment or impact on Earth, most people continue to be captivated by space and the possibility of exploring it further.

In fact, Americans have become increasingly supportive of space exploration over the decades, Mark Kaufman, science reporter for Mashable writes. In 1972, 60 percent of Americans thought we were spending too much on space exploration. This number has been steadily dropping over the years, and only 24 percent of Americans today think we’re overspending on space exploration.

More people are likely to say that we’re spending the right amount or too little. Not only are Americans more interested in space because of missions like Cassini and Curiosity, they’re also concerned about private companies like SpaceX taking up the market. People want space exploration, and they want the American government to remain a thought-leader on Earth.