First launched into space in 2018, each member of the trio, shaped like a cube and 12.5 inches (just over 30 cm) wide, is tasked with helping the inhabitants of the ISS carry out important – but often tedious – tasks such as taking inventory, document experiments with built-in cameras or transport goods throughout the station. Honey and Bumble went up first and were quickly followed by Queen.
“In addition to making spaceflight safer and more profitable, robotic assistants like Astrobees could handle routine tasks to free up humans for more complex work,” NASA said. One day, these space robots could even soar with astronauts on future missions to the moon, like NASA’s Project Artemis, to Mars and potentially to deep space.
A new milestone
NASA said last week that two astrobees — Queen and Bumble — have managed to function independently, side by side with their mortal employees. “In previous experiments, the robots operated on their own or needed more active support from their human counterparts,” NASA said.
In the foreground, the Queen (mint green) takes her first 360-degree panoramic image of the interior of the ISS, according to NASA. Ahead, a small Bumble (blue) can be seen testing its navigation capabilities in what is called the Harmony Module, an on-board service center, collecting new map data from the station.
According to the agency, both of these experiments are part of the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking Project (ISAAC), the organization that oversees the Astrobee system. ISAAC researchers are also responsible for these robots’ docking stations, where they return to “rest, relax” and above all (literally) recharge when their batteries are low.
Help that tends to become independent
In addition to learning standard spacecraft monitoring and maintenance capabilities, the ISAAC team is trying to make these robots as autonomous as possible, although the Astrobees can be remotely controlled manually if necessary. Indeed, in the future, spacecraft such as the moon’s Gateway space station “will not be manned year-round and will need intelligent, autonomous robots to monitor things in the absence of humans,” the agency said. Nasa.
These droids are not the first synthetic workers to orbit Earth. Their legacy rests on NASA’s Spheres robots, which have lived alongside scientists in space for more than a decade now. Although Spheres are quite similar to Astrobees, they are built with older technology. Eventually, the Astrobees are expected to take over, giving their predecessors a well-deserved retirement.
In April, the agency reported that Astrobees had flown more than 750 hours aboard the ISS, performed more than 100 activities, and proved they were capable of feats that had previously been the stuff of science fiction, such as successful reporting and investigation of simulated irregularities on board the station independently.
Last year, for example, astronauts adjusted the station’s life support systems to detect a (falsely) very high concentration of carbon dioxide. Bumble quickly noticed this, navigated the ISS to find out what was wrong, actually found the problem (a fake “sock” blocking a vent), and called for help.
With Honey, Queen and Bumble, reality seems to be slowly getting closer to fiction, and maybe one day astronauts will have their own Tars, Kipp and Case (Interstellar) to accompany them in space.
CNET.com article adapted by CNETFrance