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NASA: Robots critical to Endeavour's mission on space station

Two robots will work as a team and one robotic arm is set to 'walk' outside of ISS

June 12, 2009 01:46 PM ET

Computerworld - The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour is getting ready to launch into what NASA is calling its most technical mission yet - one that will call on the power of three separate robots.

Endeavour is set to launch at 7:17 a.m. EDT Saturday, carrying aloft a seven-person crew on a 16-day mission to expand the Japanese laboratory housed on the International Space Station.

The highly complex mission will include five spacewalks, the use of three robotic arms, two working together and one that will actually "walk" across the outside of the space station.

Holly Ridings, lead space station flight director for the Endeavour mission, said it is one of the most technical undertaken by NASA. The mission goals couldn't be reached, she added, without the use of NASA robotics technology.

"The length of the mission, the five spacewalks, the robotics used almost every single day and 13 crew members makes it a big puzzle and all those pieces need to fit together correctly to get everything done," said Ridings, adding that NASA space missions will become increasingly dependent on robots.

"We have learned a lot about robotics and about working together with robot," she said. "Our spacewalkers are involved in activities while the robotic arms are looking at them and giving us camera views. The choreography of the different robotic arms is really complicated, and we've learned a lot about it and we do it well. Robotics is really one of the things that NASA has a lot of experience in and it's allowing us to do some wonderful things on the space station."

Endeavour is scheduled to dock with the space station early Monday morning. Then the real hard work begins on Tuesday when two astronauts will take the mission's first spacewalk with the help of two robotic arms.

Ridings explained that as the astronauts begin their work outside the space station, a robotic arm will lift a 4-ton piece of the Japanese complex out of the shuttle's payload bay. This piece, which has been dubbed a "front porch", will be permanently attached to the outside of the Japanese module. It is designed to hold its own payloads, as well as host experiments that need to be conducted in outer space.

Once the station's robotic appendage called the big arm has extracted the porch from the shuttle, it will be handed off to the space shuttle's own robotic arm. While the shuttle's arm holds the porch, the station's arm will move itself about 50 feet down the length of the space station by basically moving much like a child's Slinky toy.

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