Front Line Space Explorers—Space Robots

If you were growing up in the 1960’s, you might have watched the first moon landing on television. Back then, space exploration was still in its very early stages…in fact, having a television in the house to watch it unfold was a pretty new luxury! Seeing astronauts making the very first human footprints on the surface of the moon was nothing short of a miracle.

An archival photograph of an astronaut on the moon.
Credit: NASA

Invention and Innovation

We’ve come a long way since 1969. Further exploration and scientific study allowed us to send many more people into space, launch rockets and satellites that observe and provide information about our planet and solar system, as well as providing entertainment. We’ve built a space station to allow scientific research in space over long periods of time, and the Hubble telescope, which sends us extraordinary images of our galaxy and beyond.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen in Earth's orbit.
Hubble Telescope. Credit: NASA

A Robot Revolution!

Now that we’re ready to explore even deeper and further into the secrets of space, scientists and engineers have designed advanced robots that can withstand the harsh and unforgiving environment outside Earth’s atmosphere and make even more remarkable discoveries about our universe and our place within it. These robots can survive extreme temperatures, an inhospitable atmosphere and terrain that is impossible for human beings to wander. These robots are equipped with cameras and sensors that send back information and images for scientists to study. They also can perform tasks that might be risky for people, or do work like collecting samples, conducting simple tests, making repairs on equipment and taking measurements. This saves more time for astronauts and scientists to perform experiments and keep researching and exploring. Although these robots can cost billions of dollars, they don’t need air, food, water or a bathroom!

The Mars rovers—Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity and soon-to-be-launched Perseverance have helped us understand our neighbor in our solar system, finding out what Mars is made of. They can examine rocks from different areas of the planet and move over the terrain in the freezing temperatures. Their biggest contribution has been to discover evidence of water and signs of life—or the possibility of life–that may one day make it possible for humans to journey to the Red Planet.

A selfie of the Mars Curiosity Rover with a landscape of Mars in the background.
NASA’s Curiosity rover took this selfie on Oct. 11, 2019, the 2,553rd Martian day, or sol, of its mission.
A 360º panorama taken amid the "Murray Buttes" on Mars by the Curiosity mars Rover.
Rover’s Panorama Taken Amid ‘Murray Buttes’ on Mars.
This 360-degree panorama was acquired by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover .

Another rover, named Puffer, which stands for Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Rover, can change its shape and flatten itself to look inside small spaces.

BRUIE, a Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, can float and roll along under ice as it takes pictures and gathers information. One day this robot may travel to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn.

Another explorer robot is called Hedgehog.  This strangely shaped cubic robot has “spikes” on all sides that let it tumble and bounce over rough ground, and works on no matter what side it lands. It is designed to explore space’s smaller objects, like asteroids and comets.

The Hedgehog robot, designed to explore the surface of comets and asteroids, performing a "tornado" maneuver to spin and launch itself from the surface of planet or asteroid.  It is shown in a testing environment.
The Hedgehog robot, designed to explore the surfaces of comets and asteroids, can perform a “tornado” maneuver to spin and launch itself from the surface.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stanford
A Hedgehog robot depicted on an asteroid or moon.
While a Mars rover can’t operate upside down, the Hedgehog robot can function regardless of which side lands up. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stanford

Humanoid Robots

Space engineers have designed robots with the capability of doing tasks best done by human hands and movements, acting as helpers on the International Space Station for dangerous, time-consuming or simple tasks. R2 is a robot that looks like the upper torso of a human. It can use tools to fix equipment and can provide an extra set of hands for astronauts on board the space station. It can clean, hit buttons and flip switches. One of its most important jobs is testing the air quality onboard the space station. This job requires zero movement, which is near-impossible for a person, and since R2 doesn’t breathe, the results of the air quality test won’t be affected by a person breathing in the test area.

The R2 robot holding an instrument to measure air velocity during a system check in the International Space Station.
Controlled by teams on the ground, Robonaut 2 humanoid robot holds an instrument to measure air velocity during another system check out in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Valkyrie, also called R5, is a fully-limbed humanoid robot that has more advanced sensors and capabilities, making it a useful tool both inside and outside the space station. One day, Valkyrie may be sent to the moon or Mars to help build a place in which humans can live and work.

An image of the Valkyrie robot from NASA.
Valkyrie. Image Credit: NASA

Robots have a vital role to play in our exploration and understanding of the unknown wonders of space!
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