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What Are the Different Types of Space Robots?

The man-made satellites orbiting the Earth qualify as space robots.
Canadarm is a fixture on the international space station.
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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Images By: Yuriy, Global Panorama
  • Last Modified Date: 13 July 2014
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Since the beginning of the space age, space robots have played an instrumental role in exploring the cosmos and facilitating human spaceflight. They are the artificial satellites orbiting the earth. Space robots are mankind's explorers in the solar system. Finally, they assist astronauts in living and working in space.

Orbital satellites represent many different types of space robots. One type are used for the world's communication networks. Another are the mapping satellites that take images of the Earth. These satellites have a wide range of purposes including measuring changes on the Earth's surface, surveying the weather, and even spying on other nations. The cameras of other space robots are turned away from the Earth; satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope study the reaches of the known universe.

A second class of space robots travel away from Earth's orbit to land on other planetary bodies such as the moon, Mars and Venus. These robots are rovers or stationary landers, and use airbags or retrorockets to land safely. After arrival, the robots use instrument packages to examine the soil and atmosphere. For planets like Jupiter that have no solid surface, a different form of robot is necessary. Using a parachute to slow its decent, the robot transmits information back to Earth before being crushed by the planet's thickening atmosphere.

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A similar class of space robots explores the solar system without landing on any body. They use cameras and a variety of instruments to measure conditions on other planets, moons and the sun. Like the robots described in the previous paragraph, these robots use solar cells to power their instruments.

For probes that venture into deep space, radioisotope thermoelectric generators provide power. These generators use radioactive decay to produce decades worth of continuous electricity. Any robots launched to explore past the asteroid belt in the near future will rely on this technology.

Besides acting as explorers, space robots assist astronauts in manned spaceflight. One of the most notable examples is the Canadarm. Developed with funding from the Canadian Space Agency, the Canadarm became a permanent fixture on many American space shuttles and the international space station. With a human working a set of controls, the Canadarm — and other subsequent manipulators developed for use in outer space — moves within 6 degrees of freedom to transfer cargo, release satellites and transport astronauts performing extravehicular activities to their work sites. It is all but certain that successors to the Canadarm will continue to be a part of future manned spaceflight.

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Discuss this Article

SkyWhisperer
Post 4

@miriam98 - Space exploration robots provide a wide variety of useful functions, whether they are operating solo or to assist other manned missions.

Personally I don’t think that we need to get to “sentient” robots anytime soon. The advantage robots have is that they don’t need oxygen and they don’t need water.

I would rather see more robotic missions to planets in our solar system rather than worrying about a manned mission to Mars or something like that. I simply don’t see the benefit of sending humans out into the far reaches of space, except perhaps maybe for the thrill that it produces. But that’s not enough of a reason in my opinion. Robots are safer and more efficient.

miriam98
Post 3

@David09 - Really the present state of the art is exciting enough on its own terms in my opinion. I remember teaching in elementary school at around the time the famous “Mars Rover” robot landed on Mars.

It moved about on the Martian surface and snapped photos of the landscape. It also used its robotic arms to gather samples and transmit the information back to planet Earth. The kids in my class were really excited about the Mars Rover and what it accomplished.

David09
Post 2

@hamje32 - I know what you mean by science fiction. I still think we are a long way from the Lost in Space robots that cry “danger, danger” and communicate with people in a truly intelligent manner.

We don’t have truly sentient beings. But we do have robots that can communicate basic information – and we certainly have computers that can beat chess masters at their own game. So I think we are getting close to robots that can truly function as human-like creations.

hamje32
Post 1

Space robots conjure up science fiction images. Honestly I never thought of something as mundane as orbiting satellites as being space robots. At first glance it would appear that they lack intelligence, but then again, maybe not.

Since their functions are to transmit and receive signals to and from the earth and gather information, I guess they really are robots in space. They don’t move on robot wheels but I think the basic intelligence – the brain if you will – is there.

It takes advanced computing algorithms to be able to do what satellites to; scan space and bring back meaningful information to planet earth.

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