Robots in Space – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Recently, tesla used the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to propel its Roadster and Starman into space.  Czech and Canadian researchers have estimated that it will remain in space for tens of million of years before possibly crashing into Earth or Venus. Sadly, the beautiful red paint will not stay intact as it is bombarded by microasteroids over time – I can’t image this is covered by Tesla’s warranty.  One thing is now for sure – Tesla now have the coolest car advert in the universe!

 

Sadly, Starman is just a mannequin in a slick new SpaceX suit. However, robots have placed a fundamental role in space travel and our exploration of the final frontier. NASA has always relied upon robotsto setup and advance before human for space exploration. Robotsare excellent precursors for conducting science missions ahead of humansas they are not affected by high doses of radiation and can survive in the vacuum. We would not have made nearly quiet as many achievements or understand as much about our galaxy without them. However, not every robot launched into space has been a success. Here we recount some of the good, the bad and the ugly of robot space travel.  

The Good

Robonaught

Robonaught is a joint collaboration between NASA, General Motors and Oceaneering, to build a highly dexterous, state of the art humanoid robot. Robonaught incorporates vision systems, image recognition systems, tendon hands, control algorithms, and much more, in fact its development has led to almost 50 patent applications. One of its most interesting technologies is machine learning artificial intelligence, which allows it to complete an assigned task without human training. Robonaught was designed to work with humans, or to conduct tasks where the risk to humans would be too great and has been deployed on the International Space Station since 2012.

Robonaught isn’t just all about improving workloads in space, it was loaned to Woodside Petrolium last year. Its five-year mission is to explore how safety, reliability and efficiency can be improved in remote environments. The robot will complete tasks from a list of 300 suggested by their employees.

Rosetta and Philae

Rosetta was a space probe developed by the European Space Agency for the surveying of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On 12thNovember 2014, Rosetta’s lander, Philae, made the first soft landing on a comet. This doesn’t sound like much but consider the comet and Rosetta were hurtling through the galaxy at 60,000 km/hour, so this was like hitting a speeding bullet from another speeding bullet and controlling the operation more than 500,000,000 km away on Earth. To make matters worse, the comet was constantly pushing Rosetta away as it underwent the process of outgassing, where ice boiled on its surface as it neared the sun, resulting in it spewing out dust and gas. Once the lander was released it drifted down to the comets surface and here it would encounter the hazards of boulders, cracks and dips. Overcoming all of the odds, it landed successfully but sadly behind a cliff face which made it impossible to collect solar power. For two days, the lander functioned but not long enough to perform all of the planned scientific work.

Mars Rover

The name is synonymous with Martian exploration. However, this is in fact a series of robots dating back to 1971. The first successful deployment on Mars was on 4thJuly 1997 with the Sojourner rover deployed from the Mars Pathfinderand this was also the first successful Mars landing since the Viking probes in the 1970s. The rover was active from 3 months and in that time travelled a distance of just 100 meters. During this time, it sent 2.3 billion bits of information including 16,500 pictures and made 8.5 million measurements of the atmospheric pressure, temperature and wind speed.

Since the end of Sojourner’s mission three more rovers have successfully landed on Mars. Most recently the Curiosity rover landed in 2011 and its two-year mission to determine if Mars could support life, as well as study the role of water, climate and geology,has been extended indefinably.

The Bad

Beagle 2

Since 2010, there have been 38 satellite launch attempts to Mars with only 19 succeeding. The only European Space Agency attempt was the British Mars lander the Beagle 2 which was designed to look for signs that life once existed. On Christmas day 2003, after separating from the orbiter which carried the robot to the red planet it was never heard from again. Unsurprisingly for anything to do with space travel, the conspiracy theorists got hard to work trying to prove that the whole disappearance was staged. However, in 2015 the lander was discovered intact and partially deployed approximately 5km from its intended landing site. Scientists and Engineers have postulated that the reason for the disappearance was that one of the modules failed to open resulting in the radio antenna and communications not being installed.

The Ugly

The Mars Climate Orbiter

Back when I was a teenager studying for high school exams, my physics teacher was constantly reprimanding me for not writing the units after values, once I was forced to write “I will always write the units” 500 times. It pains me to admit but she had a point and here is why:

In 1998, before Elon Musk’s aspirations to reach the red planet were known, NASA had placed their hopes of the first other world weather observer in the Mars Climate Orbiter. However, as the $125 million orbiter approached the planet and attempted to maneuverer into orbit it suddenly vanished. Within half-an-hour the NASA engineers and scientists had realised what the issue was and that it was gone forever.

The problem was in the software controlling the orbiter’s thrusters. The software calculated the force the thrusters needed to exert in pounds of force. A separate piece of software took in the data assuming it was in the metric unit: Newtons. This meant that the calculation of thrust was 4.45 times smaller than expected resulting in the orbiter slamming into the Martian atmosphere and burning up.

NASA Engineer Richard Cook recalled: “The units thing has become the lore, the example in every kid’s textbook from that point on,” Cook said. “Everyone was amazed we didn’t catch it.”

NOAA-19

Spaceflight certainly carries risk, a number of satellites have been lost into the cosmos, others have been caught in launch pad explosions and then there is this. The NOAA-19 was a weather satellite developed for the National Oceanic and atmospheric Administration. On 6thSeptember 2003, during the final servicing at a Lockheed-Martin facility in California, engineers failed to check if the satellite was bolted down before moving it and accidentally knocked it over onto the floor, breaking a number of sensors and components. Repairs to the satellite cost $135 million. It wasn’t quite the crash landing they were expecting. 

However, NOAA-19 was successfully launched from Vanderburg Airforce Base on 6thFebruary 2009.

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