Is the Cosmobot doing the Illuminati hand sign?  (Source: Ria Novosti)
Russian robot will take over dangerous spacewalk duties at the International Space Station

The International Space Station, a low-Earth orbit (LEO) habited orbiting space-base, continues to be a hotbed of research activity.  Funded through 2020 and expected to potentially operate through at least 2028, the station is mankind's ninth inhabited space station to date and is the largest artificial object in Earth orbit.  Built with the launch of the Expedition 1 module in 2000, the ISS has been continuously inhabited ever since.

I. A New Spacebot

But mankind's most expensive research project requires regular maintenance of a dangerous variety to stay operational.  To deal with shifting solar conditions, hardware malfunctions, and occasional damage form space debris, ISS residents have to embark on occasional spacewalks to tweak the station's external machinery.

Soon, they will be getting a helping hand -- but not of the human variety.  Russia is preparing to deploy its first humanoid space robot, the "Cosmobot SAR-401".

The SAR-401 "Cosmobot" [Image Source: Ria Novosti] 

A launch date for the Russian robot has not been announced, but the design was recently shown off in a test demonstration at the Yury Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow Region’s Star City.  While the demo was impressive, the Cosmobot's creator, a company called Android Technics, cautions that the design is not yet finished.  They state to Russian state-owned news agency RT:

The work isn’t yet completed, so it’s currently impossible to evaluate the whole program.  [Once finished], in general, its work will be replacement of equipment, checking and maintenance [of the station].  A robot can never become a full substitute for a man. It’s interaction, not replacement we’re talking about.

Android Technics is building the Russian robot on behalf of The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and plans to field it sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.

Cosmobot borrows liberally from The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) "Robonaut 2", a humanoid robot co-designed by General Motors Comp. (GM).  Robonaut 2 is scheduled to get a new pair of legs and a fresh battery backpack, which will transform him from a mere torso into a walking 8-foot-tall Android that can operate for longer periods between charges.

Robonaut 2
Robonaut 2 [Image Source: NASA]

The Cosmobot SAR-401 replaces the SAR-400, an earlier prototype that Russia kept behind closed doors, leading to some fears that it might not actually exist.  The SAR-401 also shares the "Cosmobot" monitor with AnthroTronix, Inc.'s diminuitive terrestrial robot, which helps children with disabilities.

Android Technics brags that the Russian robot will be "a lot cheaper" than the American Robonaut 2.

II. New Robot Gets Ready to do Its Spacewalk

Many at NASA and partner space agencies are eager to get robots to perform spacewalks.  Astronaut Cady Coleman told ABC News in an interview earlier this month:

There is no question in my mind that bringing robots outside and having them do spacewalks would be a great use of robots in space. A spacewalk takes a lot of consumables, we breathe, we have to check out the spacesuits.  We have to be triple sure that everything is right because we don't want to lose anyone on a spacewalk.

But Robonaut 2 will need more upgrades before it can operate outdoors.  Currently its electronics are only designed to operate within the shielded confines of the space station.  And that's where the cosmobot adds an important twist.

Cosmobot waving
Cosmobot will be capable of servicing the Russian Segment of the station. [Image Source: Ria Novosti]

The Cosmbot SAR-401 is designed to be able to operate in the vacuum and perform approximately 90 percent of the spacewalk duties that are currently performed by humans.  During these operations it will offer remote spacewalk capabilities to the station's residents, moving its limbs under the control of the astronauts with some help from onboard artificial intelligence, which makes the motions smoother and more precise.

Cosmobot mimicks
The robot will be capable of doing 90 percent of current manned spacewalk maintenance, and will be launched sometime in the next few years. [Image Source: Ria Novosti]

Current robotic maintenance tools are mounted on the CanadaArm2 remote-controlled maintenance arm, which is essentially a bigger, more flexible, more powerful version of the Canadarm used to deploy satellites from the now-mothballed Space Shuttle fleet.  Both the Canadarm and Canadarm2 were designed and built by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as the name implies.  Currently Canadarm2 has a cruder robotic Torso, "Dextre" (also known as "Canada Hand").

Launched in March 2008, the robot has taken over most maintenance duties.  However, it can only work on the American side of the station, as it is unable to reach the Russian segment.  Hence repairs and adjustments to the Russian segment are still done the old-fashioned way -- with human spacewalks.

The Cosmobot will be mounted to the European Robotic Arm, a second external manipulator that is expected to be added to the outside of the Russian Segment of the ISS in 2014.

ERA Space Arm
The European Space Arm will be a lighter companion to the Canadarm2. [Image Source: ESA]

The new arm is being built by the The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company N.V. (EADS) (EPA:EAD) subsidiary Dutch Space on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA).
ERA schematic
ERA render
[Image Source: ESA]

The European Robotic Arm will be less bulky that the hulking Canadarm2.  This is because Russian and European spacecraft (including the heavily used Russian Soyuz capsules) dock automatically.  By contrast, the Canadarm2 was designed to assist manual docking of the shuttle and supply craft, hence it needed to be larger and more complex.

(SpaceX fans should note that the DragonX supply capsule docks using the Canadarm2.)

ESA Space Arm render
An artist's rendering of the European Robotic Arm post-deployment [Image Source: ESA]

There is also a third robotic arm -- the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System (JEM-RMS).  But that arm is more of a test arm, not suitable for heavy external maintenance.

A key design decision that Android Technics is still sorting out is whether to house Cosmobot in an external temperature controlled bubble outside the space station, when not in use, or to simply keep it inside.  The latter solution offers less engineering challenges, but would increase the maintenance burdern on the station crew, whereas the more complex exterior solution would be desirable in that it would require the least human intervention to deploy on a spacewalk.

III. Other Notes

NASA is still playing with the idea of making Robonaut (or Robonaut 2) spaceworthy via modifications and a similar mounting scheme.

Robonaut on CanadaArm2
An artist's depiction of a potential future modified Robonaut mounted to the station's Canadarm2. [Image Source: John Frassanito & Assoc. for NASA]

While Robonaut 2 and Cosmobot are hulking androids, they share the station with a much more pint-sized robotic companion, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) "Kirobo".  Kirobo and its Earth-stationed backup "Mirata" were designed by the University of Tokyo.  They're equipped with facial recognition, natural speech recognition, speech generation, and advanced artificial intelligence, making them much more sociable crew members than Robonaut or Cosmobot.

Russia has a rich tradition of borrowing from the U.S. space program with "clone" designs.  Its most (in)famous clone was the Cold War era Buran space plane, a clone of the Space Shuttle.  Designed by OAO S.P. Korolyov Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) the Buran space plane was impressive in its own right, capable of full automated takeoffs and landings. 

The Russian Space Shuttle clone, Buran [Image Source: Roscosmos]

It completed a single successful space flight in 1988.  More flights were intended to follow, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the program was cancelled.  Four other space planes were also partially constructed, with Ptichka being the closest to completion.  

Buran vs. Shuttle   Buran v. Shuttle
Buran (right, each image) versus the U.S. Space Shuttle (left, each image)
[Image Source: Unknown (left), Aircraft Wiki (right)]

Today Ptichka is the flagbearer of the Russian space plane legacy, as Buran was sadly destroyed when the roof of the building it was stored in collapsed in 2002.  Today Buran's surviving sister space plane is owned by Kazakhstan and is housed in MIK building at Baikonur Cosmodrome (the spaceport from which the original Buran launch occurred).

Sources: RT [press coverage (English)], [video (Russian)]

"If you mod me down, I will become more insightful than you can possibly imagine." -- Slashdot

Copyright 2017 DailyTech LLC. - RSS Feed | Advertise | About Us | Ethics | FAQ | Terms, Conditions & Privacy Information | Kristopher Kubicki