Gassing Up in Orbit
R2 has other robotic crewmates on the International Space Station. They don’t look like their human counterparts, but they do the kind of work that could kill an astronaut, like fixing equipment in the deadly, airless vacuum of space. And the more these robots succeed, the more responsibility will fall on their articulated shoulders.
Now You Know: The R2 unit is the first dexterous humanoid robot in space.
Dextre, a Canadian robot, is at his best when there is dirty work to be done in space. He’s equipped with lights and video equipment so astronauts or ground controllers can drive him remotely and tele-operate his two arms. And like any good handyman, Dextre has a tool kit stuffed with whatever he needs to get the job done. A day at work for Dextre is like this: swing into space on a massive arm, then work on delicate electronics and space hardware that is literally priceless to the scientists on the planet below. His first job, completed in 2011, was to unpack deliveries from an unmanned spacecraft.
The ability to perform tasks that would be potentially life-threatening for humans is a major plus. For starters, the temperatures around the ISS can range from 250 degrees below zero in the shade to 250 degrees Fahrenheit in direct sunlight. Donning a pressure suit — which is basically a wearable spaceship — makes for slow going and takes intensive training. And spacewalkers get exposed to radiation levels that can damage body cells. The nightmare scenario is of an astronaut somehow losing his or her tether and floating away. Robots have none of these concerns. Still, humanoid robots like R2 have something to prove. If they succeed, there will be more following them into orbit.
One new experiment that may help decide the future of space robots is called the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM), which aims to prove that a robotic arm (Dextre) — operated by keyboard by humans back on Earth — can service satellites in orbit. Last year, astronauts launched the RRM into space and attached it to the outside of the ISS. From there, Dextre has taken over. The refueling devices that Dextre uses fit into ports of various sizes and shapes that can be found on the myriad satellites cruising in orbit.
But the robot will have to play a role that is one part gas-station attendant and another part safecracker. As fuel is typically toxic, satellites are built with safety features like wires and valve caps to protect launchpad workers from accidental damage. Those must be disabled in order for the robot to refuel the spacecraft, so Dextre carries a tool that not only clips metal wires but ensures that bits of wire don’t float away to become orbital debris or a hazard to the station or other satellites. (Objects in space travel hundreds to thousands of miles an hour, so even a small scrap could wreck a solar panel or damage a habitat wall.)
What would it mean if robots could service satellites? Rather than becoming merely space junk — of which there’s enough in orbit already — they could be used for extended lengths of time. And with the high cost of launching satellites, longer-lasting equipment means a more cost-efficient program.