Robots in Space – The Beginning of a New Era of Space Exploration

Different Types of Robots Used in Space Exploration

With the introduction of robots in space exploration many people around the world fear the end of manned exploration in space. Just what are these robots? Let’s discuss the different types of robots used in space exploration

1. Rovers: They are specially designed robotic vehicles, which explore the surface of planetary bodies as they move across them. NASA’s Mars Pathfinder rover, Sojourner and Russia’s Lunokhod 1 are autonomous robotic vehicles.

2. Flyby Probe: In this type of space probe the robotic space explorer collects information in the form of images and other telemetry as it flies very close by the celestial object. NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 to Jupiter and beyond are an example of flyby probes.

3. Orbiter: Unlike a flyby probe, an orbiter studies a celestial object after achieving a stable orbit around the object for a long period of time. The Mars Global Surveyor, Galileo to Jupiter, and the Cassini mission to Saturn are a few robotic orbiter missions.

4. Lander: A robotic lander lands on the surface of the celestial body and studies soil and other peculiarities of its surface from a stationary position. The Viking and Phoenix missions to Mars are examples of landers.

5. Atmospheric Probes: These space probes remain in, or transit through the atmosphere of the planet or moon and study weather patterns and atmospheric peculiarities until its end. The Huygens probe to Titan acted as an atmospheric probe and then a lander once it was on the surface of Saturn’s moon.

6. Robot Arms: They help in carrying out the repair and assembly tasks on International Space Station and Space Shuttle that could not be completed by a human. Canadarm is the most famous among them.

7. Humanoid Robots: This is the latest addition to the robotic collect and is designed to utilize tools and equipment that have been made for human use.

The Beginning of the Robot Era: Russia and USA

Luna 16

The robots began to gain importance during 1970s. In 1970, the Luna 16 mission robot successfully collected and brought back lunar soil to the Earth for further study. It was the first successful robotic mission. It was followed by the first robotic rover mission named Lunokhod 1, through which Russians were able to explore the lunar surface for almost one year. Russia continued its robotic spacecraft missions with the launching of the two successful Venus probes: Venera 7 in August 1970 and Venera 9 in October 1975. The Russian lander mission to Mars in November 1971—Mars 2 was unsuccessful.

During the same period American’s, too, used robotic spacecraft to study Solar System. NASA’s Mariner 9 in 1971 entered Mars orbit and studied it extensively for nearly one year. Later in 1973, NASA’s Pioneer 10 mission sent the first close glimpse of the planet Jupiter. This was followed by Mariner 10 mission to Mercury in 1974, which gave us valuable information on using the gravity of other planets to change the trajectory of a spacecraft, when it had a close flyby with the Venus. NASA’s landers, Viking 1 and 2 to Mars in 1976 and Pioneer 11 Saturn in 1979 were also successful.

The Growing Robot Era

The 1980’s saw a renewed interest in the robotic missions as, in addition to Russians and Americans, Japanese and European countries used robotic spacecrafts to study Halley’s Comet, which was making a re-entry into the inner solar system. In 1985, for the first time in the history of space exploration, Japan sent a spacecraft, Sakigake to study comet Hailey. The European Space Agency, too, became part of the robotic space exploration group with its Giotto mission to study comet Halley in 1986. Americans were less active in robotic missions during this period, only launching two spacecraft, namely the International Cometary Explorer in 1985 to comet Halley and the Magellan spacecraft to Venus in 1989. Thus began a robotic era with more and more nations sending robotic spacecraft to study the local cosmic bodies.

Robonaut 2 : NASA's humanoid robot

In 2003, NASA used two robotic rovers to study the Mars surface to find the presence of water. NASA first used the robot rover named Sojourner during the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. China is using robot to explore the lunar surface before it takes the first Chinese astronauts to the moon. Change 1, the orbiter launched in 2007 marked the beginning of China’s robotic lunar mission.

NASA is planning to send a humanoid robot named Robonaut 2 to the International Space Station in September 2010. It is designed in such a way that it is capable of using all the tools which its human companions inside the space station use.

Dextre, the Canadian humanoid robotic arm was the first to become part of ISS. This Canadarm is used to carry out maintenance tasks on the International Space Station. Even Robonaut 2 is not fully capable of operating in all hostile conditions but its stay on the ISS will help scientists to make modifications so that they will become an indispensable part of space missions.

Japan is planning to set up its own research station on the lunar surface by 2025, which will be operated completely by humanoid robots. It is supposed to begin with the launching of its first humanoid robot to the Moon by 2015. Recently, in May 2010, Japan launched an orbiter PLANET – C to the Venus.

Venus Express is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) orbiter launched in 2005 to explore the atmosphere of Venus. In 1990 ESA together with NASA launched Ulysses, an orbiter to study the Sun followed by SOHO in 1996 to gather information on the Sun’s interior structure, the core, corona and solar winds. ESA is planning to send another orbiter named Solar Orbiter by 2015 to have a closer look at the Sun. Cassini, launched jointly by ESA, NASA and Italian Space Agency in 1997 is in orbit about the Saturnian system, executing multiple flybys of the many moons of the ringed planet.

India became part of space probe community with the launching of its orbiter Chandrayaan I in 2008 to the Moon, and it was a partial success. But the lander, Moon Impact Probe (MIP) which followed this was successful. Galileo, the orbiter launched in 1995 to Jupiter was a joint venture of Germany and America.

With the advancement in science and technology space probes may become even cheaper, more efficient and more numerous.