The final frontier: robots in space

If you’re planning a trip to space, don’t forget to invite a robot.

Robots are excellent companions for any trip to space – they aren’t harmed by the intense solar radiation, and they don’t even mind the extreme temperatures or lack of air. This means robots can perform lots of tasks in space that would be too dangerous for human astronauts to complete.

A photo of the International Space Station with Earth in the background.
Robots are essential for maintenance work on the International Space Station.
(Public Domain image created by NASA)

Robots are also cheaper to run than humans because they don’t need food or water. And unlike human astronauts, their muscles don’t waste away in zero-gravity, so they don’t ever have to come home! Astronauts can lose a fifth of their muscle mass in a few weeks, so on the International Space Station (ISS) they have to spend a lot of time working out.

Space robots come in all different shapes and sizes. Many are rovers like the kind you might choose to design using the Twinkl Robotics app, and some look almost human — the Valkyrie robot might one day help humans colonize Mars. Others, like NASA’s cube-shaped hedgehog robot, are just plain bizarre. Hedgehog was designed to explore asteroids and comments, hopping and tumbling over their hilly surfaces and launching itself out of deep craters.

We’re going on an alien hunt

Because of their many talents, robots have explored much further into space than humans, where they have been able to take photos and collect samples of distant moons and planets. One example is Mars, where many different probes and rovers have visited and transmitted data back to scientists on Earth.

A photo of Curiosity Rover on Mars.
Curiosity Rover is exploring Mars for signs of life.
(Public domain image created by NASA)

In 2003, NASA launched Spirit and Opportunity – two rovers sent to Mars to study the planet’s soils and atmosphere. Together they have found evidence that there was once liquid water on Mars and conditions that may have been suitable for life. Following in their footsteps, NASA’s Curiosity Rover touched down on Mars in 2012 and continues to collect samples and data that would test for signs that of ancient alien life on the red planet.

Space technology down to Earth

You might not realise it, but much of our everyday life here on Earth also relies on robotics in space! There are over 4500 satellites that orbit the planet Earth and they are essential for all sorts of technology we rely on, from mobile phone signal to GPS navigation. Every one of them was built on Earth and launched into space, but they still need a little TLC every so often to keep them working while in orbit. Repairing a machine that is hurtling round the Earth at 7000 miles per hour is no easy job, so scientists have designed robots to do this for us too.

And because we have sent so much stuff – satellites, space craft, launch vehicles – into space now, we will have to use robots in orbit around the Earth to clean up ‘space debris’! If we didn’t clean up this space trash, it could be very dangerous to working satellites, rockets, even the ISS.

Some space technology has also proved useful down here on Earth, from CT scans and digital x-rays to lightweight materials for aeroplanes.

Design your own space robot

The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by the FAIR-SPACE Hub, where researchers are developing technology – from robotic drills to navigation software – to help robots operate and even build in space. They are also researching wearable technology for astronauts on the International Space Station that allow them to interact safely and effectively with robots.

Download the FAIR-SPACE space robotics fact sheet for your class here.

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