As humans prepare to expand our reach further into space, a new generation of robotic systems and artificial intelligence is on track to support us on our journey into the solar system. Today, new robotic systems like the Perseverance rover are already helping us in our space missions, including to the surface of Mars. These robots provide us with crucial analysis and information on extraterrestrial landscapes.
Of course, these machines can sometimes be slow to provide information as they survey their surroundings and wait for programmed instruction from Earth during their explorations. Currently, the electronics industry is notably slower to develop new processors that can cope with thermal and radiation challenges that are so often experienced during space travel, forcing space programs to use older hardware.
However, companies throughout the NewSpace sector are working in tandem with government agencies to develop advanced robotics that will take us farther into space. Onboard processing and improved image recognition are a few areas of concentration of robotic space-enabled technology development. Eventually, it will provide a new wave of more autonomous space robots if innovations keep up at a progressive pace.
Advancements in AI and autonomous machines are crucial for a new generation of robots to have “extreme terrain mobility,” a design that allows them to explore dangerous landscapes on foreign planets. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is currently researching how robots can autonomously assess hazards to explore rough terrain but also operate in challenging low-gravity and other harsh atmospheric conditions.
On top of autonomous space exploration, robotic systems are positioned to pave the way for crewed space missions, including building shelters for human habitation. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency is testing autonomous construction robots like tractors and backhoes to build a Moon base with limited human oversight. Of course, a significant challenge to overcome is the lack of a GPS system for precise navigation on the Moon and Mars. While NASA’s high-altitude GPS system can implement Earth’s GPS satellites from space, additional advances like the Deep Space Atomic Clock could also eventually help robots navigate in space.
Luckily, the NewSpace sector is putting its mark on ways to guide space exploration, developing advanced robotic technologies to help these robots navigate space. Astrobotic is one such NewSpace company developing advanced space robotics capabilities that include terrain-relative navigation and mobile robotics for lunar surface operations. Their visual terrain relative navigation (TRN) and LiDAR-based hazard detection enable precise and safe landings on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. They were the first commercial company to use TRN and hazard detection to guide a suborbital launch vehicle to a safe landing site. Currently, Astrobotic continues to develop their systems to minimize size, weight, power, and cost. Their TRN system won a NASA Tipping Point contract and will fly to the Moon in 2021.
Another company, Altius Space Machines, boasts a portfolio of internally-funded and NASA or DoD-sponsored projects with various robotic solutions for purposes ranging from satellite servicing and space debris removal to grabbing boulders off of asteroids with a magnetic capture system. They’ve also developed a posable cryogenic fluid transfer line as part of its cryogenic refueling development effort and dust tolerant tool changers, which will help moving robot parts to navigate dusty, grimy and otherwise hazardous environments. These tools are being designed for exploration on the Moon, Mars and can also have food-handling and space mining applications.
Robotic systems from companies like Altius that are capable of construction and resource utilization could address the single biggest obstacle to space exploration: the exorbitant expense of getting there and staying there. Notably, the space sector is focused on driving down those costs with the robotic innovations that will make space exploration more possible through efficiency and sustainability. And it’s no surprise that the market will continue to develop as the robotic space market is expected to be worth $5.7 billion by 2027.
In the not too distant future, the NewSpace sectors’ robotic innovations could allow commercial companies to support a thriving space economy. Perhaps they’ll be able to haul drinking water to Moon colonies and extract ice from asteroids to give to thirsty astronauts. A vast solar array built on trusses made from cemented lunar soil could help beam energy to Earth. Humans may finally be able to gather the resources they need to complete a round-trip journey to Mars and back successfully.