NASA's robotics research sometimes gives us a glimpse into the future, to a time when humans and robots will work hand-in-hand on other worlds. But humans and robots already are working together.
Without robotics, major accomplishments of building the International Space Station, repairing satellites in space, and exploring other worlds would not be possible. Robotic arms and hands are used on the space shuttle and the space station to build, repair, investigate and more.
On her first spaceflight, astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger will operate the space shuttle's robotic arm. She is a mission specialist on the STS-131 mission, targeted to launch in spring 2010. The arm is called a "remote manipulator system." It is also referred to as the Canadarm, after the country that made it.
During STS-131, Metcalf-Lindenburger will use the shuttle arm to inspect the space shuttle for any damage that may have occurred during launch or while in space. To inspect the underside of the space shuttle, the 50-foot Orbiter Boom Sensing System is attached to the end of the robotic arm. A camera and laser on the boom's end allow astronauts to check the orbiter for possible damage.
Other members of the STS-131 crew will use the space station's Canadarm2 to move equipment from the shuttle's payload bay to the station.
Astronauts spend many months learning and practicing to work with robots in space. Instructors like Linda Bigonesse train crew members using high-tech simulations and virtual reality environments. Bigonesse is a shuttle robotic arm instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
All robotic arm training for the shuttle arm uses computerized graphics, Bigonesse explained. Astronauts do not work with an actual arm but with a virtual one. Astronauts use three main tools to practice using the shuttle's robotic arm.
The Dynamic Skills Trainer is used for individual training. The trainer displays on a computer monitor the aft, or rear, part of the shuttle cockpit, where the robotic arm controls are located. Astronauts practice the procedures they will do in space by using a mouse to click the switches they will flip in space. Other computer monitors around them show the window views of the shuttle's payload bay.
Most of the robotic arm training takes place in the Shuttle Engineering Simulator, also called "the dome" because it is shaped like a giant dome. Inside the dome is a mock-up of the aft part of the space shuttle cockpit. Projected onto the dome are window views of what astronauts will see when they are working in space.
Metcalf-Lindenburger described the dome as a "360-degree immersive simulation." Bigonesse said the dome has better graphics that make it more realistic than other training tools. Several crew members can work together in the dome at one time, enabling this training to mimic more closely the conditions in which astronauts will be working in the shuttle. Adding to the realism are working switches that flip just like the actual switches in the shuttle.
Some shuttle arm training also is conducted in the Shuttle Mission Simulator, which is a mock-up of the entire shuttle cockpit. The simulator usually is not used specifically for robotic arm training. However, an entire crew may perform a mission simulation of a day when the robotic arm would be used, so arm activities would be part of that simulation. For example, on Flight Day 2 the shuttle arm operator checks out the Orbiter Boom Sensing System and inspects the shuttle tiles. During a Flight Day 2 mission simulation, the arm operator would rehearse that task.
In addition to these facilities, crew members learning to use the station's robotic arm train in Johnson's Virtual Reality Lab. There, station arm operators can practice tasks alongside spacewalking crew members. During an actual spacewalk, an astronaut may be mounted on the end of the arm or may be working with the arm to move equipment outside the station.
Station arm operators also train near the dome in a mock-up of the cupola module. The cupola module will be part of the Tranquility space station node scheduled to launch with the STS-130 shuttle mission in early 2010. The small, dome-shaped module has seven windows - six around the sides and one on top – giving crew members a multi-directional view to monitor spacewalks. Once added to the station, the station's robotic arm operations will be housed in the cupola. The station's arm currently is operated from the station's Destiny Laboratory.
Robotic arms have been used in space for nearly 30 years. The shuttle arm was first flown in 1981 on the space shuttle's second spaceflight. The space station's arm was added in 2001. The robotic hand "Dextre" was added in 2008. In the summer of 2009, as part of the STS-127 shuttle mission, astronauts installed a second station arm as part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo module.
Already, robotic arms have made it possible for NASA to accomplish amazing feats, and Metcalf-Lindenburger predicted robotic devices will continue to be developed and used as NASA goes to the moon and beyond. Robots on other surfaces may be used to collect and analyze samples or help with the construction of an outpost.
Today's students will be the ones building the robots of the future, and some students already have a head start. Children as young as age 6 are participating in student robotics competitions. As one of NASA's educator astronauts, it is important to Metcalf-Lindenburger that students understand the potential importance of robotics.
Robotics will be important not only to the future of space exploration but in all types of fields, Metcalf-Lindenburger said. "You see it being used in auto manufacturing and in medicine, so I think we'll continue to see robotics used more and more in society. Students need to be aware of how robotics can be used for different things."
For educators, Metcalf-Lindenburger said robotics can be fun way to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "This is a way to say, 'This is important to study math and science because you may be working with these things, and you may be designing these things. You will probably be influenced by robots at some time in your life.'"
> Astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger Biography →
> Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger: Educator Astronaut
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Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services