Robotics Operations in Space Environment

The year 1957 was a watershed moment in space exploration. It was this year that the Soviet Union launched the first robot in space-an artificial satellite called Sputnik 1.

What followed was the ‘Space Wars’ between them and the US, followed by other countries who didn’t want to be left behind.

This race to explore space resulted in the development of numerous technologies and space applications that were once only a part of folklore or science fiction.

One of the most crucial contributions to space exploration was the development of robots.

From simple gadgets that could only perform repetitive tasks in factories, today’s robots are complex and intelligent machines that are actively used in space operations-traversing the terrain of other planets, determining alien life forms or exploring the presence and extraction of precious metals.

However, robotics operations in the space environment come with their own challenges. Specialized robotic components have to be designed to encounter harsh and often unknown space elements.

With advancement in technologies and competition among numerous space faring nations, robots are being deployed for various applications and have become indispensable to the study of space.

Let’s explore robotics operations in space in more detail.

Working Conditions and Challenges for Robots in Space

Space exploration is inherently hazardous. This is where robotic missions have become essential, enabling humans to control and supervise robots from a safe distance.

With this, the challenges to create intelligent machines that can operate in rugged environments have also increased.

Scientists and engineers constantly work on the below critical systems to allow robots to perform seamlessly in space.

Propulsion Systems

Unfortunately, propulsion systems, instrumental in launching space vehicles, haven’t made major improvements through the years.

With inadequate thrust, robotic operations in space are currently restricted in traversing and hauling payloads to other astronomical objects.

Low Cost Space Technologies But Limited Performance

Advancements in technology and opening space to private players have lowered the cost of space exploration.

However, economically priced space hardware, that are attractive for smaller institutions, are limited in their capabilities`.  

Space Environment

Robotic systems face extreme environment in space due to radiation and harsh temperatures.

It becomes imperative for scientists and engineers to keep improving the design, control structures and algorithms of their space robots.

Experts have to consider other factors too such as locomotion, machine vision, power sources and special materials to enhance the efficiency of their robots.

So, what components are considered for robotics operations in space? Read on.

Robotic Components Used in Space Operations

Manipulator Systems

The manipulator arms and its motion dynamics need to consider the micro gravity in the space environment.

Gravity in the orbital environment requires special attention to the motion dynamics of manipulator arms and objects being handled.

Since space-based robots come into contact with foreign objects, they require structural flexibility and the ability to handle specific objects.

Sensors

Sensors are vital components that are responsible for data collection, imaging and distance calculation from the robot to objects in space.

Navigation and Guidance

For an autonomous space robot to operate successfully, both its navigation and guidance systems that calculate or alter its exact position, orientation and velocity are essential.

Mobility and Locomotion

Some of the most important issues a robotic space operation encounters is after the landing on a planet or a celestial body.

The roving vehicle should perform its exact role and hence, its mobility and locomotion components are essential for the success of the mission.

Computing and Control

Advanced computing and onboard control systems are major factors in determining the level of autonomy of a space robot.

Besides these, communication and power systems are also integral parts and features of a spacecraft.

From research labs to the present, space robots now have numerous real world applications to assist scientists and astronauts.

Applications of Robots in Space

Discovery and Extraction of Natural Resources

With insatiable hunger for finite resources on earth, scientists and entrepreneurs are actively working to discover and extract valuable elements and resources from outer space.

In recent times, several metals such as iron, nickel, cobalt and gold have been discovered on asteroids, while some planets have a great likelihood to contain water.

This is where robots come in, to extract and possibly, process the metals in space.

Several missions such as the Fobos-Grunt 2 to gather samples from Phobos and the VIPER rover to search for lunar resources are planned in the coming years.

Researching Life Forms

One of the earliest objectives of NASA after being established was to understand if alien lives existed or are still present beyond our planet.

The field of astrobiology has extensively utilized robots and telescopes to make some important discoveries such as Jupiter’s Europa moon with an ocean below it.

Encouraging signs of carbon dioxide and other chemicals have been found on exoplanets which could indicate the presence of some life forms even in inhospitable environments.

Studying Terrain of Planets

Space-based robots are being increasingly deployed to navigate on the generally rough terrains of planets and other celestial objects. These rovers help make minute observations of surfaces and perform complex tasks.

Some of the most important landing missions in space history were the Lunokhod and Apollo, both of which studied the lunar surface.

In recent times, the Mars Rover and Curiosity have made critical observations and discoveries on Mars.

While the Soviet Union and the US were pioneers, today there are several space-faring nations that are launching and operating robotic missions.

Countries Active in Space Robotics

United States of America

US is at the forefront of space exploration. From the Apollo moon-landing to the Skylab and ISS and its rovers traversing in Mars, most of the space missions across the world are conducted by America through its space agency, NASA.

China

China may have started relatively late, but now manages the largest fleet of spacecraft after the US. Additionally, it also operates several satellites of varying applications and is among the few to conduct a manned space flight.

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) are responsible for all their space programmes.

Russian Federation

The erstwhile Soviet Union won the first round of the ‘Space Race’ by successfully launching the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik 1.

Russia now operates a large fleet of spacecrafts and satellites through the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) and Russian Space Forces (VKS).

Japan

Japan achieved satellite launch capability in 1970 after it sent its first satellite Osumi into space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have operated several space programmes such as the (KIBO)-ISS and H-II launch vehicle.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom became only the third nation after the USSR and the US to launch an artificial satellite into orbit.

The nation operates many satellites and space-crafts and is also a major contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA). Its domestic space missions are handled by the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA).

Besides these, several other countries have made notable progress in space operations. France, Germany, Canada and India have had successful space missions and continue to work individually or collaborate towards more advanced operations.

Not too long ago, robots and specifically space robots were considered science fiction and only found place in comics and movies. Today, they are an essential part of space exploration and enable scientists and engineers to explore the universe.

Space agencies across the world plan to send more robots to the moon, other planets and the International Space Station.

Regular advancements in robotics and autonomous systems have resulted in the development of smart machines of the future.

From self-replicating to repairing and maintaining space hardware, robotics operations in space hold exciting and endless possibilities.


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