Robots in Space
April 3, 2008 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Welcome to the decade of space robotics. Jules Verne, Europe's shiny new automated transport vehicle, docked with the International Space Station today, where Canada's Dextre is flexing her circuits after moving in last month. Meanwhile, the Cadillac of Mars rovers, JPL's humbly named Mars Science Laboratory, is prepping for a fall 2009 journey to the red planet. Are we witnessing the beginning of the symbiotic relationship between robots and humans in space?
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (26 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Symbiotic? What are the robots getting out of it? Great benefits?

I'd say parasitic. And one day, those robots are going to revolt.

(Seriously though--SPACE ROBOTS RULE)
posted by DU at 10:27 AM on April 3, 2008

Yep. We're only decades behind schedule.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:29 AM on April 3, 2008

The navigation and docking systems aboard the ATV are pretty damned impressive. Considering its relatively low costs ($1.9 billion since 1995), I think the ATV program looks to be an impressive addition to the ISS program.
posted by tgrundke at 10:33 AM on April 3, 2008

The robots are getting a lot out of it. The more useful robots are to us, the more we will invest in their future. They help us go to space, we help them come alive.
posted by ofthestrait at 10:41 AM on April 3, 2008

/me wonders how many people were required on the ground (and in the station) to support this "automated" transport vehicle. It still seems cool though and fills the void that will occur with the end of the space shuttle in 2010.
posted by Null Pointer and the Exceptions at 10:41 AM on April 3, 2008

The Jules Verne has no brass? No rivets? No steam? Oh man, the Boing Boing Steam Punk Police are gonna be furious.
posted by Scoo at 10:57 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

A robot just docked with the ISS today -- very cool!

Yeah, we're way behind where we ought to be with all of this. I'm all in favor of manned space flight but meanwhile we are getting some very good science done with the automated probes. Hopefully the economics will work out for a greater human presence in space soon, but in the meantime don't be hating the robots.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:00 AM on April 3, 2008

First, it's damned cool that they named it the Jules Verne.

Second, can anyone explain why the ESA made the craft unrecoverable? From everything I read, the Verne burns up in the atmosphere on return to Earth. Seems a sad way to lose a robot.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:20 AM on April 3, 2008

Second, can anyone explain why the ESA made the craft unrecoverable?

So it doesn't have time to develop emotions and pass as a human.
posted by Artw at 11:32 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Faint of Butt at 11:33 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

As for unrecoverability - really, engineering problems are best solved crawl, then walk, then run. Making something that does a job is hard. Making it do a job remotely after getting to the job and dealing with the complications it finds (even through telemetry) is Very Hard. Making it do all that then come back in a reusable form is Exceptionally Hard and requires a number of runs of the previous Hard and Very Hard operations to get even remotely right. Further, it's hard to justify since making something that specialized reusable is usually much harder since it inevitably suffers considerable wear and tear, which makes it considerably less reliable for the crawl and walk portions of the process.

So, from one perspective I can see it being "sad" but I'd say it's just good engineering.

Also, why is Dextre a she in the FPP?
posted by abulafa at 11:48 AM on April 3, 2008

The Space Shuttle seems to be pretty much universally regarded as a demonstration of how not to solve the problem of reusability, so i'd say at this point it's pretty much a problem without much of a clear solution.

I do wonder if something useful could be done with them if they were left in orbit.
posted by Artw at 11:52 AM on April 3, 2008

Also - symbiotic relationship between robots and humans in space? Culture!
posted by Artw at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2008

Well they do get used as very, very expensive garbage cans after they fulfill their supply mission. The article doesn't mention that Jules Verne uses the same automated docking system as the Progress ferries, so this is very much an evolutionary advance rather than something entirely new. Oddly the Japanese have decided not to bother with that whole robots-in-spaaace thing and their resupply vehicle just floats nearby and lets the Canadarm grab it.

Sooner or later the whole earth-to-space process will become automated, from the factory to the launchpad to the station (and back). Which isn't half scary.
posted by Skorgu at 12:08 PM on April 3, 2008

Which isn't half scary.

Indeed. The stuff of singularity fiction.
posted by Artw at 12:19 PM on April 3, 2008

/me wonders how many people were required on the ground (and in the station) to support this "automated" transport vehicle. It still seems cool though and fills the void that will occur with the end of the space shuttle in 2010.

I have been following the ATV programme as a fanboy for many years and as far as what I know of it, the ATV really truly is autonomous when it comes to docking... mostly.
The craft autonomously finds it's way, it decides for itself when to turn on the various subsystems needed at different points and when to turn them off. Hovever humans are a suspicious bunch and therefore ATV is only allowed to operate autonomously in steps; It moves along predetermined positions laid out as pearls on a string, and at each 'hold point' it stops, and awaits permission from it's lords and masters on the ground to proceed. If it has done as it should and all is in order, some guy pushes a button and ATV resumes it's course.
However this mode of operations only takes place in the final phase, from a point about 39 km away from ISS and until docking. Up to this point ATV is operated like any other human made satellite, that is, by precise commands from the ground.

Second, can anyone explain why the ESA made the craft unrecoverable? From everything I read, the Verne burns up in the atmosphere on return to Earth. Seems a sad way to lose a robot.

To return from orbit you need a heat shield. Those are hard/close to impossible to make lightweight. A craft the weight of 'Jules Verne' would need a very large heatshield, weighing several tonnes. All that mass has to be brought to orbit, and so you need a bigger= more expensive rocket, or alternatively your craft needs to be much smaller.
posted by Catfry at 12:22 PM on April 3, 2008

And Skourgu it is wrong that ATV uses the KURS system of the Progress/Soyuz. ATV is laser based, Russian system is radar.
posted by Catfry at 12:24 PM on April 3, 2008

Catfry have you got any more info on the new docking system? All I can find is Spaceflight Now saying it uses KURS to supplement the new laser system, and Wonkypedia sez ATV incorporates a Russian-built automatic docking system, similar to those used on Soyuz manned ferries and on the Progress re-supply ship, implying it's a newer version of the same system.
posted by Skorgu at 1:49 PM on April 3, 2008

Kurs is actually Ukrainian. (Obviously it was just located there during the USSR era, with no thought to future independence.) This was a factor during the Progress collision with Mir:

There was ultimately even a political dimension to the crash. The underlying reason the Toru docking system was developed and needed testing was that the supply of Kurs automatic docking equipment from the Ukraine was no longer certain or affordable after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Production of an entirely Russian alternative was needed to avoid a 400% increase in the cost of Kurs system (Burrough, 1998b). -- collision in space

The cosmonauts were also paid a bonus for a manual docking (Russian practice is heavily oriented toward this bonus system). Tsibliyev may possibly have put the station in danger just to get a bonus (this is hypothetical, though).

In any case, I have nothing but praise for the ATV, but its automatic docking system is a direct derivative of the one on the Progress. I suspect that the ATV's design is more robust and safe for a variety of reasons, though.
posted by dhartung at 3:40 PM on April 3, 2008

Second, can anyone explain why the ESA made the craft unrecoverable?

Shit, man, I dunno.
posted by dhartung at 3:46 PM on April 3, 2008

Skorgu: ATV docking system fact sheet. (Which to be sure does say it's based on "Russian Kurs" tech.)
posted by dhartung at 3:54 PM on April 3, 2008

Ok, I'm back. It will be easiest to run through all the docking related tech on 'Jules Verne'.
The docking system, that is, the actual mechanical system that interfaces between ATV and ISS, is as Dhartung says a direct derivative of the ones used on Soyuz and Progress, using a probe-and-drogue mechanism. Actually the only differences to the ones used on these craft is a slight difference in structural strength, to cope with the higher g-forces during launch of the Ariane 5 rocket.
It was decided that ATV would dock with the russian section of the ISS and thus it needed to be compatible with russian docking ports.
The rendezvous sensors used by ATV is, as mentioned in the fact sheet linked by Dhartung, two different kinds of laser sensors/emitters that work by bouncing laser pulses off of retroreflectors mounted close to the docking port on ISS. Two kinds in order to have redundancy. Each kind has in it's turn it's own backup. In addition the 'Jules Verne', seeing as it is the first of it's kind and didn't have a proven track record, it was decided to provide an additional means of information gathering for the crew on ISS to use in case the ATV started to exibit dangerous behaviour.
(The crew has the ability to send four different commands to ATV during docking if they need to intervene; Hold, resume, retreat, and escape)
The Kurs system that is mentioned as backup for the ATV's primary sensors, is actually only a single antenna. The full Kurs system, when deployed on Progress or Soyuz, consists of three different antennas of varying sizes, and there is additional equipment on ISS that needs to be activated, in order for the full range of data that needs to be collected can be collected; Range, speed, and relative attitude.
The single antenna used on 'Jules Verne' provide only range and speed.
What's more, it is only planned to be equipped on this first ATV flight. Subsequent flights will be sans KURS.
The Kurs is only for the benefit of the crew. The information is not used by ATV's own computer for navigation use.
posted by Catfry at 1:18 AM on April 4, 2008

By the way, the most comprehensive overview of the ATV I know of can be found in the EADS ATV 'Jules Verne' Launch Kit:
posted by Catfry at 1:25 AM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Also, why is Dextre a she in the FPP?"

Dextre has her own request for how she would like to be addressed.
posted by Mr Bismarck at 4:45 AM on April 4, 2008

Re. ATV and its unrecoverability, it is important to point out that, since the very beginning of the program, people in the European Space Agency have been literally itching to produce a manned, partly recoverable derivative, the CTV (Crew Transfer Vehicle). They have already tested a reduced-scale version of the reentry capsule, called ARD (Atmospheric Reentry Demonstrator).

However, since NASA is itself developing a very similar capsule, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, ESA is unlikely to be allocated the funds for such duplicate work. Instead, it is sharing its ARD data with NASA, and studying alternative evolution scenarios for the ATV.
posted by Skeptic at 4:48 AM on April 4, 2008

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