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NASA tests robots for manned move to Mars

Mars Lander and space station robots used as test beds for future use by astronauts

June 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When astronauts first step foot on Mars, they won't be alone.

NASA scientists plan on prepositioning robots and robotic rovers on the red planet before the first astronauts arrive. That way, the robots will be ready to help their human counterparts on what probably will be NASA's most taxing mission yet.

And while that's years away, NASA is testing its robotic muscle now. With three robotic arms aboard the International Space Station and the space shuttle Discovery returning from the most robotically intense mission yet, NASA is using this robotic work as a test bed for future missions.

"We're using robots a lot more," said Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA. "We keep increasing the complexity of the robotics work we do. This really complex robotics work is becoming commonplace. This mission was entirely dependent on robotics. We couldn't have done this work without them."

When astronauts get to Mars, they'll be using robots as part of their everyday existence, added Beutel. They'll also need robotics to help them build any workstation or habitat structure on Mars, or on the moon.

"The Space Station is a really good proving ground for the robotics," he said. "This is just the beginning."

Early in 2004, President George W. Bush set the goal of living and working on the moon for increasingly extended periods of time, and of sending human missions to Mars.

This week, the space shuttle Discovery detached from the International Space Station and is slated to land Saturday morning Eastern time.

The crew on the 123rd shuttle mission helped deliver a 33-foot-long, 1,716-pound Japanese-built robotic arm, called HTV, to the space station. The arm has six joints and is designed for use outside the Japanese Experiment Module, moving materials outside the airlock so scientists can see, for example, how they react when exposed to space.

This is the first of two Japanese-built robotic arms that will be used on the space station. Beutel said the second arm, which will be about 6 feet long with a grapple on one end, is scheduled to be delivered to the space station next year. The first arm isn't slated to be used until the second arm arrives.

The new Japanese arm joins two other robotic arms on board the space station.

Dextre is a 12-foot-tall robot with a 30-foot wingspan built by the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Delivered by the space shuttle Endeavour in March, the $200 million robot is designed to take on most of the maintenance jobs required outside of the space station, thus cutting back on the number of dangerous space walks the astronauts must make.

Canadian engineers have been working on Dextre -- pronounced Dexter -- for the past 10 years, according to Pierre Jean, acting program manager of the Canadian Space Station. With a sense of touch, Dextre can work with objects as large as a phone booth or as small as a phone book.

Dextre is fully assembled and tested. It's now awaiting its first mission.

The first robotic arm to take up residence on the space station was Canadarm 2, which was delivered seven years ago. Also built by the Canadian Space Agency, the arm can be used to reach into the shuttle's cargo bay and bring out pallets and equipment needed at the station.

In this last shuttle mission, Mission Specialist Ron Garan actually rode Canadarm 2 from one side of the space station to the other. Beutel explained that Garan needed to move an empty, 550-pound nitrogen tank and come back with a full tank. To facilitate the trip, he locked his boots into the grips on the arm, tethered himself and the arm swung him 80 feet above the space station. "He said it was quite a ride," said Beutel. "It must have been a heck of a view with the Earth passing below him."

And over on Mars, the Lander is using a robotic arm to scoop soil and ice from the northern pole and deliver the material to different analysis tools. That arm, according to Matthew Robinson, robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the key to discovering whether the planet can support life.

The 7.5-foot-long arm has an attached scoop and drill bit that will dig up Martian ice and dust on the northern pole of the planet. The collected material will be analyzed onboard the Mars Lander and the results sent back to Earth.

"The robotic arm is basically the key to this mission," said Robinson in a previous interview. "None of it is any good if you don't have a robotic arm to bring in samples. We'd be able to get pictures, but what excites me is acquiring a sample and processing it, because that gives us a whole new set of knowledge. We're not looking for life itself. We're looking for the elements that support life. We couldn't do it without the arm."

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