Space Robots
when Dream Meets Reality

For me who has always loved science-fiction, space robots have always seemed like a dream come true. I was 17 when the duo Spirit Opportunity sent back there first images from Mars. That is basically why I chose the science major in college. And I am now working in a robotics lab. That's how much influence robots in space can have on people. And I don't think I'm the only one.

But these are only two of the many space robots that can make us dream everyday. The Japanese robot Hayabusa has brought back asteroid dust in 2010 in a journey as dramatic as Apollo 13's story. And NASA humanoid robots will soon accompany the astronauts of the International Space Station (ISS) during their daily life.

Not all the space robots were created for space programs. Isaac Asimov and his Robots novel series made predictions about our world that are becoming more and more true today. And the Star wars R2D2 robot is the dream of any space engineer. Of course let's not forget the infinite imagination of the Japanese, and their animations.

1) Robots Space Programs

a) NASA Robots: 1st Mars Rover,
1st humanoid robot in space

Robonaut ready for his mission.
Image from NASA
Humanoid robots in space Robonaut

Niel Armstrong was the first man on the Moon. But it's Sojourner that was the first space rover to travel on Mars' ground. It happened in 1997, and the Sojourner rover made history. Imagine a robot traveling more than 60 millions kilometers to reach Mars. And then, without any human control, it landed peacefully on the surface and started to move around...

The next two space rovers to explore Mars were the duo Spirit Opportunity. They arrived at their new home in January 2004. In January 2011, they're still alive!! (well, as much as a robot can be) At this pace, they will finish like David, in Spielberg's AI: the only remnant of humankind when the aliens come to visit.
1 Learn more about the features and mission of Mars Rovers.
2 Why do we send Mars Rovers to begin with?
3 The Curiosity Rover
4 Focus on Curiosity Rover nuclear battery

What about the humanoid robot? His name is Robonaut (actually it's Robonaut2, or R2 in short). He should be the first humanoid space robot. He should, but some delays had him rescheduled in February 2011 (3 months late). On board, he can operate some previously learned routines or be controlled like an "avatar" from the Earth. Another version with legs may be launched to the Moon if the "project M" is approved. Let's cross our fingers and see what the Obama administration will decide.
Click here to learn more about Robonaut, the Humanoid Space Robot.

b) the rest of the world

Canadarm: the space robotic arm of ISS
Image from NASA
ISS robots in space Canadarm

Let's talk about Japan now. As I said, they made the first round trip with landing on an asteroid. It's a little like in the Armageddon movie , but without Bruce Willis, the nuclear bomb, and the end of the world. As for the return trip, it's really like Apollo 13: right after taking off from the asteroid, the satellite loses it's main reactors and the communication is cut. 7 (long) days later, the satellite calls home, and a new road is created: using its ion reactors, it took him 5 more years to come back to Mother Earth.

There is also the giant robotic arm operating with high precision on the ISS. This robot, though less sexy than Robonaut2, is very useful for repairing the space station without leaving the comfortable corridors of the ISS. It saves everyone time, and time is money.

c) The future space robots

I already gave you a glimpse of the future robots in space when I talked about the mysterious "project M". But the NASA is also preparing a new space rover to send to Mars: Curiosity. This rover new generation will take off in November 2011, with a rock blasting laser and a nuclear battery. How cool is that!

Meanwhile, JAXA (Japan Aerospace eXpolration Agency) will send semi-humanoid robots to the Moon, in preparation of a future international Moon station. They also plan a Hayabusa 2, Return to the Asteroid: a sequel of the successful Hayabusa mission. But an unstable government and a limited space budget are putting the whole project on the line.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is in the party too. If they don't get confused between miles and kilometers, their first lander should fly to Mars in 2016. They are also building a space rover ExoMars and sample return mission, but no deadlines on the horizons.

As you see, between the Moon and Mars, robots will have a lot of work. But what about the humans? There are two big reasons why robots are sent in space instead of humans:

  1. it's cheaper (lighter, no return ticket...)
  2. it's safer (a robot can be lost, not an astronaut)

Click here if you want to learn more about the challenges of Robots in Space.

2) Science-fiction robots

Space robots as seen by Asimov

Space robots are present in many science-fiction novels and movies. The most influential author about robotics is clearly Isaac Asimov with his Robots series. It starts with short stories of the expansion of robots and how they're used exclusively for space missions: people on Earth being scared of these intelligent machines (Asimov calls it the Frankenstein Complex). Space robots are used for dangerous exploratory missions, and in some mining planets to bring more resources to the Earth. Does it remind you of rovers being sent to Mars for exploration? For me it does. And these novels date back from the 1950's: 50 years early, the guy!

The second part of the robot series describes the adventures of inter-planetary super detective Elijah Baley. The world is split between the over-crowded Earth in one hand, and the super comfortable Spacer worlds on the other hand. While the Earth people try to reach for new planets to escape from their miserable conditions, the Spacers enjoy their perfect 300 years lives and will try anything to avoid any changes. And there are a lot more details showing troubling similarities with today's world, split between developed and developing countries. Again, Asimov was 40 years early, writing these novels in the 60's.

My other favorites are the couple C3PO R2D2 robots from Star Wars. I say couple because I cannot see one going without the other. The communication robot is able to speak fluently more languages than Google Translate without a bug... But it can't do anything useful otherwise. And the R2D2 robot ALWAYS have the perfect trick to solve any situation... But its communication skills are limited to a few whistling sounds. For me, it shows both the specialization and the general skills that we try to achieve in robotics research or companies. More on the R2D2 robot here.

Going away from America, let's go to Japan again (but please note that there are also many French, Chinese and Korean robots that exist, though the US and Japan are clearly the leaders). Anyway, here I want to tell you about their version of the future space robots. The general agreement is that giant armor suits will fight against evil in space. While not so creative at first sight, the scenario around them usually make the show enjoyable, my personal favorite being Zegapain.

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