Robots have been going into space for a long time, as satellites, probes, and landers. One of the earlier robotic probes, the Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is still operating, and will soon leave the solar system along with Voyager 2. Other robotic spacecraft include the Juno, which is on its way to Jupiter; the Curiosity Mars rover, described below; and various Mars landers and space probes.
But some space robots don't get quite that far. Instead, they're either up in the International Space Station orbiting Earth, being tested as reentry vehicles in low-Earth orbits, or still on Earth undergoing R&D.
Click on the image below to see 13 examples of these space-worthy machines.
Justin is a humanoid robot being developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as repairing orbiting satellites. Like humanoid robots designed for home use, humanoid space robots must be dexterous, mobile, and capable of carrying out tasks that require complex manipulation of tools and objects. They also need to be intelligent and have the ability to undertake manipulations that involve the use of both hands. Justin has compliant-controlled lightweight arms and four fingers on each of its two hands. It's remotely operated by a human, and its mobile platform allows it to operate autonomously at longer ranges. The platform has individually movable, spring-born wheels to match the robot's upper body movements during manipulation tasks. Also contributing to the robot's autonomy are photonic mixer device (PMD) sensors and cameras that allow it to make 3D reconstructions of its environment. Eventually, Justin will be mounted on its own satellite. (Source: German Aerospace Center)
Rob, I think you're right about that. Humanoid robots are mostly designed to interact with humans or equipment built for humans. They're not particularly useful otherwise, and would be over-designed in many cases, or just not functional.
I agree, Rob. Up to now, most of the humanoid robots were designed to alleviate the psychological discomfort of dealing with a machine (consider Marilyn Monrobot's stand-up comedy robot). In space, that's the least of concerns.
Interesting point btwolfe. I never thought of the marketing angle, but it makes perfect sense. A lot of these robots are not just being purchased by the technical gurus to fill the function that they were designed for. They have to be approved by the non-technical or outside organizations who are providing the funding (or worse, a Congressional committee). If these things look "nice" or provide and interesting photo-op, there is an increased chance of approval even if there is no functional difference.
Just waht exactly would be the use of a permanent outpost on the moon? And if it was setup, is there any reason that it souldn't be fully automated/robotic, rather than launching millions of dollars worth of life support with each human space tourist?
The moon is a perfect exploration base. An interplanetary spaceship assembled there could be launched with far less energy than from Earth, and returned without re-entry. This would enable a ship of livable size to be built by shipping the complex systems up from Earth. The Moon itself could be mined for simple bulk materials. In this way a ship with cabin space equivalent to a small house could be launched repeatedly from the moon for approximately the energy cost of an Apollo spacecraft. Such a space base would be a logical step on the way of sending people to Mars or Vesta. Also, with virtually no atmosphere, systems that combine the best of Hubbel and Palomar could be placed there and manned.
Sparkywatt, every single nut and bolt of an interplanetary spaceship launched from the moon would first have to be launched from Earth, so the "far less energy" physics don't add up. A Hubble type telescope could be placed, unmanned on the moon, (what would a man do in the telescope that couldn't be done by telemetry?) but it would be continually rotating with the moon, while if placed in orbit it might be easier to keep it pointed where you want to look. Earth is a good place for launching robots to Mars, too. Can't see the point of sending people to do a robots' job, unless it's just for the Hollywood drama.
Your comments are correct if you ignore three factors:
1 - A ship with a large cabin is far harder to launch than a collection of parts.
2 - I mentioned in my post the possibility of mining the moon for bulk materials, potentially structural members and partitions, which is a large part of the weight. These would never have to leave the Earth. Granted, developing the capability for manufacturing complex parts on the moon would be long term, so the electronics, precision machined parts, and so on would have to be shipped up to the moon. Other heavy items that it may be possible to get on the moon include the oxygen and water (of which evidence has recently been found). That is quite a weight savings.
3 - I also mentioned in my post that there is no re-entry required to return to the moon. That eliminated the need for heat sheilding, and reduces the structural requirements, and vastly increases the re-usability of the craft. Shipping up two thirds of an interplanetary craft that can fly 20 or 30 missions is far more efficient than trying to launch the whole thing when it can only be used once without a major refit (as was the case with the Shuttle).
As to the telescope point, un anmanned system like Hubbel can do (and has done) wonderful things. But it cannot adapt to a new mission quickly. The problems with robotic missions are: They have to be planned years in advance (because they have no capability to move beyond the mission they were designed for or for self repair), there is no first hand observation, reacting to something outside the plan is not possible, there is little or no ability to inspire. Robots can do a lot, but they cannot take people there emotionally.
You talked cynically about "Hollywood drama". While it is true the media hypes everything, consider this. Nobody is going to explore without something exciting to explore. We need to inspire kids to get into science, and we won't do that unless someone can stand at the forefront and say, "this is amazing!"
Consider also that we are outgrowing our cradle. The only place to go is up. If we don't learn how to go elsewhere, we will have nowhere to go.
Most of the people who object to this stuff do so because of money. They scream about 100 billion dollar - 10 year programs as huge wastes of money. 100 billion dollars over 10 years in the US is less than $10 per family per month. I would gladly pay that to put a colony on the moon. People who beef about that simply have no sense of proportion.
Automakers are on the prowl for lighter weight materials to make vehicles less heavy and more fuel efficient, and Nanosteel is one of the companies hoping to take advantage of this opportunity with their lightweight automotive steel of the same name.
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