Space robots: Coming soon to a planet near you

Feb 01, 2013 by Gordon Roesler
NASA’s RASSOR will be able to climb hills and, more importantly, extract water, ice and fuel from lunar soil. Credit: NASA

Earlier this week, NASA announced the development of a mining robot called RASSOR: the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot. RASSOR has been designed to assist in extracting water, ice and fuel from soil on the moon – all essential resources for future human habitation.

And the reality is, if we want to achieve our dreams of exploring the solar system, robots will be the means.

With the exception of a few select missions, is in a prolonged hiatus. It has languished in low-Earth orbit over the past four decades and is likely to continue languishing for many more.

The , or ISS (take a guided tour) continues in its orbit 400 kilometres up. And China will soon visit the moon. But for more distant destinations, we've realised that radiation and bone loss would harm space travellers for life.

There are as yet no cures to the adverse physical effects of space travel, so humans remain bound to Earth, and possibly the moon, for now. Instead, we will use robots for the heavy lifting.

As our space minions, robots are expanding humanity's understanding of the solar system without endangering life and limb.

A just showed there is on Mercury. Robots have taught us that Saturn's moons are a wild collection of oddities. And if you haven't heard about Curiosity – officially the Laboratory – and its exploits, you must live on another planet.

Satellite maintenance

Exploration is not the only application for space robots. Closer to home, there's a strong economic case for using robots to refuel satellites, such as those that will support the . Satellites use fuel because the moon pulls them out of position, so refuelling makes these very expensive spacecraft last longer.

Some possible refuelling techniques are being tested at the ISS as you read this. Two companies – the experienced Canadian space firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, and the new startup Vivisat – are already trying to establish markets and methods to extend satellite lifetime.

Space-based solar power has been on the cards for many years. Credit: NASA

It may also be valuable to be able to inspect a satellite to make sure it is in good condition. Here's a video made by one satellite flying around another with no humans at the controls.

These are pretty fantastic accomplishments. And they represent technology that will support some even more audacious space businesses.

Off-Earth mining

There has been much in the media lately about a company called Planetary Resources and their plan to mine asteroids—and now there's a second company, Deep Space Industries, getting into the game.

Just as automation and robotics have transformed the mining industry on Earth, so they will inevitably play a central role in any future off-Earth mining expeditions, where hostile environments will prohibit the use of human labour.

In support of this idea, the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW is hosting a forum in February. It will bring innovators together with mining experts and university roboticists, to help robot mining take shape, and ultimately succeed.

Space structures

Further out is the idea of using robots to build huge structures in space. These structures could be large telescopes, antennas, fuel depots for longer space trips, and just about anything that is just too large to pack into the nose of a single rocket and go.

Some materials – such as ceramics, iron or hydrogen – might even come from the moon. Some of my colleagues at UNSW are working on methods to mine and process the lunar dust and to use the extracted minerals to create building materials. And, as mentioned above, there's NASA's newly announced RASSOR, which will be ready for testing in 2014.

The process, called "in-situ resource utilisation", is an important one, and it relies on the fact that transporting materials to the moon from Earth is prohibitively expensive. If you are going to build on the moon, you need to get your materials there.

How important is building large space structures? Well, would you be interested in a new supply for humanity's growing demand for energy, without greenhouse gas emissions and without nuclear waste? Space solar power is a completely clean and feasible approach, but the structures are huge. We need robots to build them.

Exciting territory

Space robotics is in its infancy, and Australia can get into the game. Australian universities have tremendous accomplishments in robotics, such as automated farming systems and helping to mine the Pilbara. By establishing collaborations with space agencies and laboratories around the world, Australian roboticists will be able to make meaningful contributions to space businesses as well as to those on Earth.

There is another reason to enter this field: Australian students want to "do space". We know this anecdotally, and we see an intense demand for space engineering degrees.

An Australian space robotics capability will motivate our best and brightest, and give them relevant opportunities here once they have their degrees. They will join one of the most exciting areas of technology, and add that innovation and expertise to the Australian economy.

robots – coming soon to a planet near you.

Explore further: MAVEN Mars spacecraft to begin orbit of Red Planet

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Jo01
2 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
"But for more distant destinations, we've realised that radiation and bone loss would harm space travellers for life."
Gordon your opinion is not based on facts.
Creating a magnetic field to protect a spacecraft from solar radiation is the solution to your first 'problem', traveling much faster (using VASIMR for example) or using rotation as artificial gravity is a solution to your second 'problem'.
It is by the way not a problem at all being without gravity for a year or longer as several astronauts have shown, the body recovers mostly from it and staying on Mars isn't a problem at all because you have lots of gravity there.
And taking no risk at all with your body is almost impossible, even on Earth. Look at work on oil rigs and near the north and south pole or under water. Lots of professions include (huge) risks for the people doing it so thats no argument at all for not going to space. This argument is a perfect fit for feeble bodied scientist though.

J.
Milou
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2013
" Australian students want to "do space"." How can one "down under" do "way up there"???
antialias_physorg
3.5 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
Creating a magnetic field to protect a spacecraft from solar radiation is the solution to your first 'problem',

You are aware that gamma radiation is not affected by magnetic fields?
staying on Mars isn't a problem at all because you have lots of gravity there
37% of Earth. That's not enough to reduce bone loss. Bone vitality is not a linear function with gravity. It depends on the activation of osteoclasts and osteoblasts for bone remodeling. Research with bedrest studies indicate that without a minimum stress osteoblasts don't build bone (and hence osteoclasts slowly eat it away). And at 37% g you aren't exposed to that minimum stress (People on earth that don't do some form of strenuous activity aren't even exposed to that minimum stress - and that's under 1 full g)
Jo01
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
Creating a magnetic field to protect a spacecraft from solar radiation is the solution to your first 'problem',

You are aware that gamma radiation is not affected by magnetic fields?
staying on Mars isn't a problem at all because you have lots of gravity there
37% of Earth. That's not enough to reduce bone loss. Bone vitality is not a linear function with gravity. It depends on the activation of osteoclasts and osteoblasts for bone remodeling. Research with bedrest studies indicate that without a minimum stress osteoblasts don't build bone (and hence osteoclasts slowly eat it away). And at 37% g you aren't exposed to that minimum stress (People on earth that don't do some form of strenuous activity aren't even exposed to that minimum stress - and that's under 1 full g)

Yes I'am aware of that, but most risk is attributed to solar radiation. Note that you aren't protected from all gamma radiation on Earth. Some risk is inevitable if you are living.
Further ...
Jo01
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
... 1/3 g is more than enough to keep bone loss from being a problem. Research from the space station shows that loss of bone can be reduced by exercise, with 1/3 g running is perfectly possible and will create a new balance. With lower gravity you don't need the same bone mass as you do on Earth.
But again, if you don't want any risk, keep sitting on your chair, and hope the ceiling doesn't fall on you.

J.
Jo01
1 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
Come to think of it, your mass is the same on Mars as it is on Earth. Stress on bone is caused by mass (inertia), so it doesn't matter how much gravity you have (it must of course prevent you from jumping of the planet). And your bones must have the same strength (or more) if gravity is lower. I expect muscles power to reduce before you arrive on Mars, so that wouldn't be a problem.

J.
ritwik
2.3 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
bone loss due to low gravity can be significantly reduced by viberation therapy and gamma rays cant fuuk with led suits .. throw me your next problem

antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
You wanna wear lead suits?
You want to proscribe vibration therapy to babies and (unborn) fetuses? How exactly will that work?
GSwift7
3 / 5 (2) Feb 01, 2013
You really don't want to send humans to the moon or mars until you have exhausted the capabilities of robotic missions. There's just no need yet.

We have the capability to do a LOT more work with robots before we invest the time/money/risks of sending humans. Robotic missions in the next 10 years should be paving the way for humans. For example, if you can build a shelter on the moon or mars with robots, then it will be a lot more practical to send people. A shelter with a few feet of regolith on top of it would substantially reduce the radiation risks, for example. But first we need to learn how to build on the moon and mars, and robots can do that. It would be a good first step if we can figure out how to make something like concrete there. That might be quite a trick on the moon, since there's no atmosphere to use as a reactant to cure the cement.

We also need to learn how to deal with the dust on both the moon and Mars. It could be toxic.
Jo01
2 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2013
You wanna wear lead suits?
You want to proscribe vibration therapy to babies and (unborn) fetuses? How exactly will that work?


Your not reasonable. It seems that you don't want to see a solution to the 'problems' posed.
Reminds me of the fear going faster than a horse when the railway was invented.
Huge imaginary problems.
My argument still stands though.

J.

P.S. your fetus argument proves your wrong, it's low (or no) gravity they swim in, seems perfectly sufficient to grow bone.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 01, 2013
Your not reasonable. It seems that you don't want to see a solution to the 'problems' posed.

Oh I DO want to see solutions to the problems. I'm just not for naively believing in stuff that aren't solution or simply denying reality (because that is also not a solution).

We'll need to think along more radical lines if we want to ever be on other planets for any length of time. Genetic engineering, artificial bodies...that sort of thing (though with artificial bodies why would we even want to go down a gravity well once we're in space?).
But our technology is nowhere near that, yet.
Jo01
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 01, 2013
... But our technology is nowhere near that, yet.


I assure you we are perfectly capable, only some of us seem to have cold feet.
I suggest you re-read my arguments ...

J.
antialias_physorg
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 01, 2013
You have arguments. I have actually worked in a research group specialising on bone analysis, bone remodeling, osteoporosis (and yes: we also had a group that worked on the vibroplate project for the ISS)...and I did my PhD on quantifying bone remodeling changes due to osteoarthritis only a bit more than 2 years ago.

So, yeah.: I think I know a liiiitle bit more about the subject than you do.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2013
A huge potential for technology spin-off here on Earth too.
Jo01
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2013
You have arguments. I have actually worked in a research group specialising on bone analysis, bone remodeling, osteoporosis (and yes: we also had a group that worked on the vibroplate project for the ISS)...and I did my PhD on quantifying bone remodeling changes due to osteoarthritis only a bit more than 2 years ago.

So, yeah.: I think I know a liiiitle bit more about the subject than you do.

Could very wel be the case, doesn't change the validity of my arguments though.

J.
Jo01
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2013
"So, yeah.: I think I know a liiiitle bit more about the subject than you do. "

And you, no doubt, know a liiiitle bit more about the subject, than they do:
http://www.nasa.g...ity.html

You lost the argument.

J.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2013
You really don't want to send humans to the moon or mars until you have exhausted the capabilities of robotic missions. There's just no need yet.
We have the need and the responsibility to establish independent colonies as soon as possible. A large rock that we discovered only a year ago, and which would have destroyed a small city, just missed us. This happens a lot.

We need to protect ourselves from unrecoverable events and from extinction. And so we need to put people on mars as soon as possible, to work out all the problems associated with permanent habitation. Plenty of volunteers out there.
Pkunk_
1 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2013
Sending people up into habitats setup somewhere like L2 , L1 or on the Moon is a very good way of reducing population pressure on Earth.
And also about the bone density loss , is it a problem for people living in Space ? Or does it become a problem only when people come back to Earth ?

Also in somewhere like Mars or the Moon it shouldn't be too hard to install a few cyclotrons to simulate a higher gravity environment. A few sessions a day should be enough to "build up" the bones.

About the article , while it's low of specifics it's based on "doable" technology. The problem is no one is willing to "pony up" since there is an unknown ROI . What will get things rolling is the prospect of unlimited "cheap" resources when things start getting scarce on Earth due to overpopulation.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2013
Sending people up into habitats setup somewhere like L2 , L1 or on the Moon is a very good way of reducing population pressure on Earth.
No its not. No matter how many people leave this planet, they will quickly be replaced. Obviously. And colony pops will supply their own growth regardless of immigration.
cyclotrons to simulate a higher gravity environment
And what do particle accelerators have to do with gravity? You trying to be funny or something?
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2013
Could very wel be the case, doesn't change the validity of my arguments though.

Yep. They were invalid/without substance before - and they are invalid/without substance now.

I am aware of the NASA work on it - and it's still inapplicable to having a sustained settelment anywhere else, because that requires that babies be subjected to that sort of torture.
Jo01
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2013
Could very wel be the case, doesn't change the validity of my arguments though.

Yep. They were invalid/without substance before - and they are invalid/without substance now.

I am aware of the NASA work on it - and it's still inapplicable to having a sustained settelment anywhere else, because that requires that babies be subjected to that sort of torture.


So you admit now that a mission to Mars is perfectly doable, but you keep diverting the argument to the problems of a permanent settlement.
If you can provide the links to conclusive evidence that variation within same order of magnitude gravitation is a permanent problem with regards to bone loss (in short anything below 1G seems to be a problem, while some people have 1/3 of the weight of others, without bone loss in either one of them and unborn babies have no problem growing bones in an effectively gravity less environment) and that inertia (mass) and muscle power isn't the cause of torsion and stress on bone
Jo01
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2013
... and as a consequence keeps bone strength intact; I will (have to) reconsider my point of view.
You know, saying my arguments are invalid isn't enough, you have to prove your statement.
I bet you can't and people will have little or no problems adapting to 1/2 or 1/3 G.

J.
NeptuneAD
1 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2013
Robots would seem to be the way of the future, at least until technology is advanced enough to eliminate all the problems with space travel etc.

Jo01 if you are so confident you have all the answers, why are you arguing as if you are wrong, provide the proof that will back up your claims.