NASA readies Astrobee flying robots for serious space science

By Paul Brinkmann
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy poses with two Astrobee robotic assistants during visual and navigation tests aboard the International Space Station in 2020. Photo courtesy of NASA
1 of 3 | NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy poses with two Astrobee robotic assistants during visual and navigation tests aboard the International Space Station in 2020. Photo courtesy of NASA

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 12 (UPI) -- NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station are preparing new Astrobee flying robots to enhance science on the orbiting laboratory -- a technology that could be vital to future deep space exploration.

The cube-shaped machines float in the microgravity of orbit and use jets of compressed air to maneuver. Astrobees can be operated by the space station crew or by people on Earth to perform science investigations.


In the future, they also may help astronauts monitor space station systems, said Jose Benavides, project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California.

"We are planning to have them perform boring, routine tasks, because crew time is one of the most valuable resources we have up there," Benavides said.

Three Astrobees were launched to the space station in 2019, to replace similar SPHERES robots that had flown around the U.S. part of the station for more than 10 years. SPHERES units were dedicated primarily for science, while NASA has bigger plans for the Astrobees.

For example, NASA and audio equipment company Bose are developing specialized microphones that could record sounds of machinery, Benavides said.

Over time, the Astrobees could alert the crew to any sudden changes in noise patterns that could signal a problem with the station's life support systems.


Astrobees also may carry sensors to detect high levels of carbon dioxide, which could create a deadly emergency.

So far, NASA has unpacked and commissioned two of the three robots, which are named Honey, Queen and Bumble.

Astrobees are equipped with speakers, cameras, laser imaging or LIDAR, signal lights, an LED touchscreen control panel, a docking arm. The robots can fly to a charging station to replenish their batteries. They also carry a laser pointer.

"That's actually a standard laser pointer you'd use giving a presentation," Benavides said, adding that ground control could use Astrobee's pointer to identify something like a defective wire or air leak.

Just before the end of the year, astronauts on the space station reviewed procedures for an Astrobee experiment about trapping space debris, according to NASA's space station updates.

Astrobees also will test an adhesive material that mimics gecko lizard feet to attach themselves to various surfaces, said Abhishek Cauligi, aerospace engineer and research assistant at Stanford's Autonomous Systems Lab. Eventually, such adhesive could be used to trap orbital space debris.

"Astrobee has been a great platform to work with," Cauligi said. "Compared to SPHERES, Astrobee has been more thoroughly verified, and its operational limits set such that we're provided more freedom to command and run the robot."


Such robots will be essential for planned missions to the moon and Mars, and especially for operating habitats in space, said Ben Lamm, founder and chief executive of artificial intelligence firm Hypergiant based in Austin, Texas.

"Robotic platforms will slowly and methodically be used to establish and maintain a power, data, and water infrastructure that eventually will be capable of sustaining long-term human presence on and near the moon," Lamm said.

20 years aboard the International Space Station

The International Space Station is photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking on October 4, 2018. NASA astronauts Andrew Feustel and Ricky Arnold and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev executed a fly-around of the orbiting laboratory to take pictures of the space station before returning home after spending 197 days in space. Photo courtesy of NASA/Roscosmos

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