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What Is Robotics?
November 9, 2009

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Robotics is the study of robots. Robots are machines that can be used to do jobs. Some robots can do work by themselves. Other robots must always have a person telling them what to do.

How Does NASA Use Robots?
NASA uses robots in many different ways. Robotic arms on spacecraft can move large objects in space. Robotic spacecraft can visit other worlds. Robotic airplanes can fly without a pilot aboard. NASA is studying new types of robots. These will work with people and help them.

What Are Robotic Arms?
NASA uses robotic arms to move large objects in space. The "Canadarm" robotic arm is on the space shuttle. The International Space Station has the larger Canadarm2. The space shuttle uses its arm for many jobs. The Canadarm can release or recover satellites. Astronauts have used it to grab the Hubble Space Telescope. This let them fix the Hubble. The shuttle and space station arms work together to help build the station. The robotic arms have added new parts to the space station. The arms also can move astronauts around on spacewalks. The space station's arm can move to different parts of the station. It moves along the outside of the station like an inchworm, attached at one end at a time. It has a robotic "hand" named Dextre that can do smaller jobs. An astronaut or someone in Mission Control must control these robotic arms. The astronaut uses controllers like joysticks used to play video games.
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How Do Robots Explore Other Worlds?
Robots help explore space. Spacecraft that explore other worlds, like the moon or Mars, are robots. These include orbiters, landers and rovers on other planets. The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity are robots. Other robotic spacecraft fly by or orbit other worlds. These robots study planets from space. The Cassini spacecraft is this type of robot. Cassini studies Saturn and its moons and rings. The Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft are now traveling beyond our solar system. They are also robots. People use computers to send messages to the spacecraft. The robots have antennas that pick up the message commands. Then the robot does what the person has told it to do.
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How Does NASA Use Robotic Airplanes?
NASA uses many airplanes that do not carry pilots aboard. Some of these airplanes are flown by remote control. Others can fly themselves, with only simple directions. Robotic planes help in many ways. They can study dangerous places. For example, they might be used to take pictures of a volcano. They let NASA try new ideas for aircraft. These planes can fly for a long time without the need to land. They also can be smaller than a plane. They may not have room for a person to be on board.

How Can Robots Help Astronauts?
NASA is developing new robots to help people in space. One of these ideas is called Robonaut. Robonaut looks like the upper body of a person. It has a chest, head and arms. Robonaut could work outside a spacecraft. It could do work like an astronaut on a spacewalk. With wheels or another way of moving, Robonaut could work on another world. Robonaut could help astronauts on the moon or Mars.
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Another robot idea is called SPHERES. These small robots look a little like soccer balls. SPHERES are being used on the space station to test how well they can move there. Someday, robots could fly around the station helping astronauts.

NASA is studying other ideas for robots. A small robotic arm could be used inside the station. A robot like that might help in an emergency. If an astronaut were seriously hurt, a doctor on Earth could use the arm to perform surgery. This technology could help on Earth, as well. Doctors could help people in faraway places where there are no doctors.

Robots also can be used as scouts to check out new areas to be explored. Scout robots can take photographs and measure the terrain. This helps scientists and engineers make better plans for exploring. Scout robots can be used to look for dangers and to find the best places to walk, drive or stop. This helps astronauts work more safely and quickly. Having humans and robots work together makes it easier to study other worlds.
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More About Robotics:
›  SPHERES   →
›  Robots Aboard International Space Station   →


Read What Is Robotics? Grades 5-8

Return to Homework Topics Grades K-4

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services

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A robot performs work outside the space station
Dextre is attached to the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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An artist's picture of Spirit on Mars
Spirit is one of a group of robots that have explored Mars from the surface or from orbit.
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A robot with a human torso on four wheels
Robonaut could perform tasks that astronauts otherwise would have to do.
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NASA
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Bowling-ball-size yellow, red and blue robots float on the space station
SPHERES robots have been tested on the International Space Station.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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A robot with science instruments for scouting
K10 is a robot that has scouted craters, lava flows and deserts to help human explorers.
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: September 6th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator