- NASA is developing a bunch of robots it wants to send to space.
- Some are humanoid like the RoboSimian and Robonaut 2, but other bots, like the Ice Worm and Astrobee, are more abstract.
- Arguably the most famous robot on its way to Mars is the Mars 2020 Rover. It’s about the size of a car: 10 feet long, 7 feet tall, and 2,314 pounds of pure robot.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: In February of 2011, the International Space Station was home to six astronauts and one Robonaut. Not to be mistaken for a spaghetti-legged member of Daft Punk, NASA’s Robonaut 2 was actually the first humanoid robot ever sent to space.
Clip: And are you sure this guy isn’t related to Hal?
Narrator: It spent about four years on the space station before it had a hardwire malfunction in 2015, and then another three years lying broken and creepy until NASA retrieved it in 2018. After a round of repairs, it’s set to return to the space station later this year, but it might not be alone, NASA has a full slate of other wonderfully weird robots it wants to send to space in the near future, and luckily none of the rest participated in a beefcake photo shoot no one asked for.
This is Dragonfly. The first multirotor vehicle from NASA that will ever set foot, er, ski, on another planet. Part robot, part space drone, Dragonfly will make the 759,000-mile eight-year journey to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Rivers, lakes, and seas across its surface are filled with not water, but liquid methane and ethane.
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Titan is the only place in the solar system besides Earth with standing bodies of liquid. But there are places along the surface that contain evidence of past liquid water and the complex molecules key to producing life, that’s what Dragonfly is after. During a 2.5 year mission, the rotorcraft will land in the Shangri-La dune fields and make its way to the Selk impact crater where scientists believe the ingredients for the recipe for life once existed.
The coolest part? Titan has the capacity for life as we know it, and life as we don’t. The evidence of water shows habitable conditions for life-forms similar to those on Earth, but the liquid methane and ethane could also be home to life, just nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Dragonfly will focus on both in order to better understand the origin of life in the universe. It’s set to launch in 2026 but won’t arrive until 2034. LEMUR is more like the mother of robots than its own thing, but we’re counting it anyway.
LEMUR stands for Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot, it’s got four limbs and was originally conceived as a repair robot for the International Space Station. It uses 16 fingers covered in hundreds of tiny fishhooks, plus a sprinkle of artificial intelligence to scale walls and avoid obstacles.
The original project ended in 2019, but technology from LEMUR is being used in other robots that still have the potential for space travel.
The Ice Worm could be the name of a terrible superhero, but in this case it’s a little squiggly robot. It’s derived from a single LEMUR limb and it moves by scrunching and un-scrunching, just like an inchworm. It’s part of a family of projects in development to explore Saturn’s and Jupiter’s icy moons.
The worm drills into the ice, end over end in order to climb or stabilize itself while collecting samples. It also inherited its mama’s AI, which helps it navigate by learning from past slipups.
Another LEMUR kid is the RoboSimian. Originally designed as a disaster-relief robot, this humanoid bot has the same four limbs as LEMUR, but its feet are a little different. Instead of grippy feet, the robot, nicknamed King Louie, has wheels made with piano wire that help it roll over uneven ground.
That’s especially helpful in icy environments like Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is what it’s being developed for now. RoboSimian can walk, crawl, inch, and even slide on its belly like a penguin. All to meet the challenges presented by silty, breakable ground.
Some micro-climbers use LEMUR’s fishhook technology to cling to rough surfaces; others use gecko-like adhesive to climb smooth walls. All of them are pocket-sized vehicles strong enough to survive 9-foot drops.
The gecko-inspired tech relies on van der Waals forces, which are basically what happens when you stick a balloon to your head with static electricity, but on a molecular level. NASA hopes to use these little guys to repair spacecraft or explore hard-to-reach spots on the moon, or Mars, or anywhere really.
Arguably the most famous robot on its way to Mars is the Mars 2020 Rover. It’s about the size of a car: 10 feet long, 7 feet tall, and 2,314 pounds of pure robot. It’s based on Curiosity, the NASA rover that landed on Mars in 2012. Relying on a proven system cuts down on costs and risks.
The new rover will continue to search for past and present habitable conditions and signs of life. But it’s bringing to the table a new drill that can bore holes in the surface and store the soil and rock samples for later use. Potentially a transport from Mars back to Earth so they can be studied in labs, but the rover won’t be roving all alone.
Inside the Mars Rover will be a little MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment. Its job is to prove it can make oxygen on Mars for fuel and breathing – like a happy little robot plant. Mars’ atmosphere is made up of about 96% carbon dioxide, no good for humans. This car-battery-sized version of MOXIE will only be able to produce about 10 grams of oxygen per hour. Future oxygen generators will need to be about 100 times larger for manned missions.
Introducing the Mars Chopper. The small, solar-powered helicopter will, fingers crossed, be the first in history to prove heavier-than-air vehicles can fly on other planets, and that’s basically its sole purpose. Just like MOXIE, it will act as a proof of concept for future missions. The challenge is that Mars’ atmosphere has 1% the density of Earth’s, making it nearly impossible for helicopters to fly at all. So far it’s passed a number of important tests that give scientists hope that they’ll be able to defy the laws of physics.
But even if it can’t fly, the chopper will basically be the parrot to the Mars Rover’s pirate. Engineers are developing grippers that will allow the copter to cling to cliffsides, a lot like a bird perches on a branch, and surprise, it’s another LEMUR baby. Its feet use the same fishhook technology as the four-limbed bot.
There’s one more robot already up in space that needs to “bee” included. It’s called Astrobee, and I think that’s reason enough for why we have to mention them. There are three Astrobees: Honey, Queen, and Bumble, obviously. Bumble and Honey shot up to the Space Station in April 2019, and Queen followed regally in July.
The free-floating cubes were designed to alleviate some of the more routine tasks that astronauts complete daily, like taking inventory or moving cargo. But they’ll also be competing with Robonaut 2 for the title of Weirdest Robot in the International Space Station.