Robots are especially valuable to space research and exploration. Humans do not belong in space since it is a hostile environment. There is no air to breathe, and no atmosphere to protect people from extreme heat, cold, or harmful rays. This is where robots are very useful. Robots are less expensive to run because they don’t require a life support system and can be left behind after the task is completed. Everything they have found can be sent back to Earth, by radio. Between 1966 and 1968, a series of Surveyor spacecraft soft-landed on the lunar surface before people were brought there. Surveyors transmitted thousands of images back to Earth, and analysed solid samples gathered with an extendible claw.
Manned mission to another planet is still some time away as planets are too hostile for humans to land on, and explore. In such cases, a robotic spacecraft is used. A robotic spacecraft is one which has no humans on board, but is controlled robotically. It is also called a space probe.
Each robotic spacecraft is designed specifically for its mission, whether it is intended to go into orbit around its target, or land on the surface. The advantages of using robotic spacecraft are that they are less expensive, and less risky than a manned mission. They can collect close up data on planets, moons, asteroids and comets, drill beneath a planet’s surface, or take radar measurements from orbit. Robotic spacecraft have brought samples of rock from the Moon, dust from a comet, and the solar wind back to Earth.
Robots to the Moon
The initial lunar exploration spacecraft were crude pioneers. In January 1959, a small Soviet sphere bristling with antennas, dubbed Luna 1, flew by the Moon at a distance of some 5,900 kilometers, but did not touch the surface of the Moon. This unmanned spacecraft was not a robot, as such, but had on board computers that gave it some measure of self control. The first robots on the Moon were sent by the Soviet Union which successfully landed two robotic rover vehicles in the early 1970s. The robots were called Lunokhod, and were a part of Russia’s Luna program for exploring the Moon. These robots took thousands of photographs from hundreds of samples, which were sent back to Earth.
Types of Robots used in Space Exploration
Two types of robots are used for space missions. They are known as ROV and RMS.
ROV stands for Remotely Operated Vehicle. It can be an unmanned space vehicle that orbits a planet, or one that lands on it. Some of those that land operate from a stationary position, while others move around the terrain.
RMS stands for Remote Manipulator System. It is a crane-like device or robotic arm which can serve as a grappler, or a remote assembly device. It is also used to position and anchor astronauts working in space.
Famous Space Robots
Space robots have played an important role in space missions, especially in those to the planet Mars. Some of them have circled the planet, others have landed on it. Russian space robots were the first to be used. The first orbiter was the Mariner 4, which flew past Mars on July 14th, 1965, and took the first close up photos of the planet. The Russians landed Venera 7 on Venus. It was the first Man-made vehicle to successfully land on another planet, and to transmit data back to Earth. Nanokhod is the robotic rover used by European Space Agency which is famous for its amazingly small size.
On 4th July 1997, the Mars Pathfinder sent by NASA landed on Mars. After the Mars Pathfinder landed, it began a successful mission exploring Mars with on-board instruments, and the robot Sojourner rover. Sojourner marked an important step forward in space exploration for several reasons. It was not controlled directly from Earth.
Rather, it sent its signals to the Pathfinder, which then relayed the signals to Earth. Sojourner was the very first robot to move around on another planet, taking photographs, and studying the soil. Its first task was analyzing the composition of ‘Barnacle Bill’ , a rock just a little way away from the landing site.
Robots used for Exploring
Robots can explore places that are dangerous for humans, like the inside of volcanoes, burning deserts, or icy wastelands. Dante II and Nomad are two such famous robots. Dante II is an eight-legged robot that crawls into live volcano chambers like a spider, looking for clues as to whether an eruption is imminent. It can climb down into the interior of a volcano, take photos with its eight cameras, and collect gas samples. On the other hand, Nomad is a self-guiding robotic vehicle that wanders the frozen Antarctic in search of meteorites. The four-wheeled, gasoline-powered Nomad cruises on its own, navigating using laser range-finders to create a map of the surrounding landscape.