Robots in Space: What Challenges for Space Robots?

There are a lot of questions about why government spend so much money on robots in space. Why not using this money to boost the economy instead? I want to answer this question here by explaining what can space robots bring to our society.

Let's see first all the things that would not even exist if if we didn't develop space technologies. Then I will speak of what challenges are in sight for space robotics and why it's important.

1) What do robots in space offer to us?

GPS, an application of space robots
From Devaiam/Flickr
GPS, an application to space robots

The space program have contributed to many applications on Earth to make our lives more comfortable. Satellites are very complex robots (they have a lot more autonomy and control systems than industrial robots, for example). It took years to develop the geostationary satellites in the 50's. Robots in space are now a fundamental part of Satellite TV, weather forecast, and many other tools. And of course the GPS system is what makes you find your way when you travel.

To stay in near Earth robotics, there is the ISS robotic arm Canadarm that helps a lot in safety, speed and cost of maintenance operations in the space station. This robot pushes a lot further the capacities of industrial arm robots, and may lead to great improvement in industrial robotics.

Then, why sending robot as far as the Moon, Mars or Venus? For now, the interest is more scientific than economic. But it is not impossible that 100 hundred years from now, we will see robot mining complexes on the Moon, or even a Moon Hotel.

Furthermore, the cost of sending space robots is really cheaper than sending astronauts. The burdens of a manned flight are numerous, and represent a totally different level of challenge. You have to add the weight of living supplies (oxygen, food and other necessities) and of the return module. The safety issues are also a big problem: you have to make sure the cabin is isolated, that radiations are minimal, and that the rocket doesn't accelerate more than what a man can bear at take-off. All of this adds up to make space robots a very cheap and efficient alternative for space exploration.

2) What Challenges for Robots in Space?

First let's see the technical challenges. Robots in space have a lot of hardware limitations. The sensible parts have to be protected from dangerous radiations of the Sun. This limits greatly the processing power of their CPUs. While Robonaut was conceived to work inside the ISS, Mars Rovers and satellites have to be totally protected from the deadly lights of the sun.

Also the lack of gravity makes it a lot harder to make good articulations. These articulations are usually twice as big as what they would be on Earth, using special oil and double-sized ball bearings. That means increased weight and less space for other useful things such as more sensors and so on. Again, it means robots in space have more hardware restrictions than robots on Earth.

Click here to see Robonaut, the Humanoid Space Robot. You can check his articulations are a lot bigger than usual Humanoid robots.

Another more challenging issue is the fact that these robots in space have to operate with no direct human contact. They can receive new instructions and some software upgrades via satellites, but cannot be touched and repaired. That means for example that the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have worked without any critical hardware issues during more than 6 years!! They have been launched in a mostly unknown environment, been through sand storms stronger than any scientists could forecast or endure temperatures from -40°C to +40°C.

Sometimes, the robots in space can be operated from Earth by an engineer. But if the rovers are on Mars or on some asteroid, they have to follow the orders autonomously. While the landing on the Moon relied on highly trained pilots, the landing of the Japanese space robot Hayabusa on an asteroid relied on highly tested programs. The robot had only its sensors are automatic controllers to approach and land on the asteroid. It's a huge performance of robotics control and space exploration.
Click here to learn more about the features and mission of Mars Rovers.

Hayabusa landed on an asteroid and brought back a sample

Courtesy of JAXA

3) What is left to prove for space robotics?

Now that we're able to send space robots on other planets and have them work for years on their own, we could think we're pretty much done with it. Anything is possible. But there are actually a lot of challenges left to push further the limits of robots in space.

Curiosity landing on Mars
From Nasa
Curiosity will land on Mars in 2018

First, the robots we've sent so far are quite small, and the rovers next generation will be bigger. Curiosity, the next Mars Rover is the size of a car and his mission name is Mars Science Laboratory. Indeed, with 10 scientific instruments to check the soil compositions, cut rocks and look for life, it is a autonomous mobile laboratory in itself. It will work day and night with a new kind of nuclear battery. It will also need a new kind of lander since it is too light for the ones used for Spirit and Opportunity. A whole revolution in itself.
More on the Curiosity Rover here.

So robots may explore Mars, Mercury and maybe Jupiter's moons in the following twenty years. But another big project is to prepare a permanent base on the Moon. Advanced robots would be sent to build and prepare a human base, and then wait for astronauts which could re-use them for further exploration or mining operations on the Moon.

Also, no robots was ever able to survive on Venus' grounds. A few missions sent some lander on the surface of Morning Star, but they didn't survive more than an hour (and weren't plan to anyway). Building a Venus Rover able to survive a few days or a month on its surface would allow scientists to gather critical data on this planet. Venus is really the twin of the Earth in size, composition and position, but is also one of the most mysterious planet of our Solar System (it revolves backward, with days longer than the year, and more...).

Other pages that may interest you:

What makes a good Mars Rover? Find out here the checklist that every robot packs up before their long long travel.

The first humanoid robot in space is Robonaut. The most fascinating crew on board of the ISS is a pure pack of high-technology.

Discover a detailed review the Curiosity Rover. It arrived on Mars in August 2012, looking for traces of life on the Red Planet.

Click here to go back from Robots in Space to the Space Robots page.

Click here to go back to the Personal Robot Home Page.

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