The role of robotics in space exploration

13th April 2023
Kiera Sowery

The exploration of space has always been one of the most challenging and exciting endeavours of humankind. Technology is pushed to the limit, and new discoveries are constantly made. So, what is the role of robotics in space exploration?

Robotics have played a crucial role in space exploration, allowing us to explore places that are too hazardous or difficult for human astronauts to reach. So, what is the role of robotics in space exploration?

The Space Robotics Technical Committee focuses on research content for the IEEE Robotics & Automation Society by tracking technical developments and encouraging innovation. It has two main areas of interest in robotics: microgravity and planetary robotics.

Microgravity robotics

Microgravity robotics refers to robots that are specifically designed to operate in zero-gravity environments, such as the International Space Station (ISS). These robots are typically used for maintenance and repair, scientific research, and to assist human astronauts with their daily tasks.

One of the most vital roles of microgravity robotics is in the maintenance and repair of the ISS. Since the ISS is located in low Earth orbit, it is constantly bombarded by micrometeoroids and space debris, which can cause damage to the station. To keep the station in good working order, robotic arms are used to perform repairs and maintenance tasks, such as replacing failed equipment or repairing solar panels. These robotic arms can be operated remotely from the ground, allowing experts to control them in real-time.

Microgravity robotics also plays a crucial role in scientific research on the ISS. Scientists use robots to conduct experiments that are too dangerous or difficult for human astronauts to perform. For example, robots have been used to study the effects of microgravity on plants, to grow crystals for drug development, and to conduct experiments on the behaviour of fluids in zero-gravity environments.

Robots can also be used to help astronauts retrieve tools and equipment, or to assist with the handling of heavy objects, reducing the workload of the astronauts and allowing them to focus on more important tasks.

Planetary robot systems

Planetary robot systems are robots that are designed to operate on the surface of other planets, such as Mars or the Moon. These robots are typically much more complex than microgravity robotics and must be able to operate in harsh environments with extreme temperatures, radiation, and dust storms.

One of the primary roles of planetary robot systems is to explore the surface of other planets and gather scientific data. For example, the Mars rovers, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity, have explored the Martian surface and have made numerous scientific discoveries, including evidence of past water on Mars. These robots are equipped with a wide range of scientific instruments, such as cameras, spectrometers, and drills, which allow them to analyse rocks and soil samples.

Planetary robot systems also play a crucial role in preparing for human missions to other planets. The Mars rovers have been used to test technologies that will be used in future human missions, including the production of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. By using robots to trial these technologies, scientists can ensure that they are safe and effective before they are used on human missions.

New frontiers

Robotics have been instrumental in advancing our understanding of the universe and have led to many exciting discoveries. Microgravity robotics have enabled us to maintain and repair the ISS, conduct experiments that would be too dangerous or difficult for human astronauts, and assist with daily tasks. Planetary robot systems have explored the surface of other planets, gathered scientific data, and tested technologies that will be crucial for future human missions. Robotics have opened up new frontiers in space exploration and have allowed us to learn more about our place in the universe.

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