With the International Space Station’s advancement, NASA felt the need for robots to assist their astronauts aboard. For this, NASA developed a free-flying robotic system- the Astrobee Robot.

The system consists of three robots— Honey, Queen, and Bumble and a docking station for recharging the robots. It is a significant step towards optimizing human work-time in space and advanced exploration to future space missions.

“The main purpose of the Astrobee platform is to provide a zero-gravity testbed for guest scientists to try out new robotic technologies in space,”

said Maria Bualat, Astrobee Robot project manager at NASA.

Robotic experiments in zero gravity will open doors for new hardware and software development for advanced space projects. This means Robots will play a crucial role alongside astronauts in future spacecraft.

Sounds interesting? Let’s look at this Astrobee Robot in detail.

What is the Astrobee Robot system?

Astrobee Robots are three cube-shaped autonomous robots. They perform tasks independently or controlled remotely by astronauts, flight controllers, or researchers on the ground. The space robots are built to help astronauts in multiple jobs, from taking notes to moving goods across the space station. 

The Astrobee robots have built-in cameras that can help astronauts to record experiments in zero gravity. They use electric fans to produce thrust to push them forward. This allows them to fly freely in zero gravity. The cameras and sensors help the robots to navigate and record their surroundings. The robots also carry a perching arm to grab items or support station handrails to conserve energy.

Maria Bualat explained,

“Astrobee will prove out robotic capabilities that will enable and enhance human exploration. Performing such experiments in zero gravity will ultimately help develop new hardware and software for future space missions.”

The Astrobee Robot system can be programmed to carry out robotic experiments in zero-gravity of the space station. This can work as a research platform for guest scientists to develop more advanced technologies for future endeavors.

Astrobee Robot was launched in 2019 and is one of the most innovative space bots. But the space advancement created a problem.

Now, with expanding space projects, including NASA’s upcoming station “Gateway,” a permanent space station in the moon orbit, NASA once again felt the need for advanced automation of the existing systems. Why?

So that as they move deeper in space, these systems can function autonomously even in the absence of human control. This is especially necessary for future space stations like Gateway since it will only be occupied for six weeks in a year, making it essential for robots to manage the station for the rest of the time without human intervention.

How are they achieving this?

ISAAC makes Astrobee Robots Future Ready

ISAAC or Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking is a software that enables spacecraft operating and robotic systems to perform autonomous operations.

The first phase of testing for the software was done in April 2021. For this, Bumble was tested in an artificial anomaly where the International Space Station’s life support systems detected a high concentration of carbon dioxide.

The Astrobee robot successfully found the problem location- a vent; It also detected the cause behind the blockage- a sock of an astronaut, represented by its printed image.

The first test was followed by Bumble building a high-resolution multi-sensor 3D map for Bay 6 of the space station’s Japanese Exploration Module. Both the tests were successful with little outer help.

The second testing phase is currently underway, which deals with multiple robots carrying shipments between the space station and a visiting spacecraft, all without human support. This will be followed by the third and final testing, which will focus on more challenging situations.

Apart from testing the ISAAC software with crises replicating real-life problems, the researchers are working to simplify the operator interface of the Astrobee robot systems.

But what difference will this advanced automation create in space projects?

“ISAAC is far more than just a management tool for our robotics and spacecraft systems,”

explained Trey Smith, the project manager for ISAAC,

“Our long-term vision is that it can transform a spacecraft into an autonomous robotic system itself.”

This means that future space stations will have the capacity to operate and manage themselves even without any human presence or remote control. The ISAAC-backed Astrobee Robots and other bots will also assist humans when they arrive at the stations for further ventures. With NASA’s project for the Moon, Mars, and beyond, this step will prove to be a significant leap for its future operations.

The space stations are close to the earth’s surface, and humans partially manage the Astrobee Robot systems. But as NASA keeps moving forward in space, human intervention will not always be possible.

To maintain a space station that operates on its own, we need a fully autonomous system. The project manager of ISAAC, Trey Smith, believes ISAAC is the key to make such stations work.

As Smith said,

“The farther we go out into space, the smarter our spacecraft and robotics systems will need to be. We’re hoping ISAAC will be an assistant to future astronauts, even when they’re not there.”