The next explorers to discover resources in space won’t be us. It’ll be robots.
When NASA’s Curiosity rover took a selfie, it was an exciting moment for humanity, but this wasn’t the first step in space for robotkind. Robots have been used for exploring space since the 1960s, when a series of surveyor spacecraft were sent to the Moon. There have been several robotic trips to the Moon since then and unmanned robots now probe deep space, investigate asteroids and monitor planets. But the most exciting chapter may be yet to come.Snake robots exploring unreachable crevices
Due to the harsh environment in space, as well as cost, health and safety issues related to sending people there, robotics plays an essential and ongoing role in space. One type of robot is designed with snake-like characteristics for reaching places that the limits of the human body prevent us from going.
The “Snake Robots for Space Applications” (SAROS), a joint project between SINTEF and European Space Agency (ESA), was launched in 2016 and has since explored the potential applications of snake robots in space. Due to their long and slender shape the snake robots can traverse though difficult terrain and access narrow passages, while the modular structure simplifies production and provides robustness if one joint fails. Snake robots have already been successfully tested within a Norwegian project as subsea installations, and are engineered to be there permanently and ready for mobilization 24/71. The snake robot can be used both as a mobile robot and as a manipulative arm, and can be used in a variety of applications. The SAROS project has studied the following use cases2:
- A tool for astronauts to help inspection and maintenance onboard the International Space Station
- Exploration tool where rovers cannot enter, such as lava tubes on the moon to scope for potential human habitation
- Complementing capabilities of other robot types, such as rovers, to explore low gravity bodies like asteroids and comets
Advances in sensors and autonomy have made robotic rovers increasingly advanced over the last years. NASA will launch a new rover, based on the design of Curiosity, in 2020 to search for past life on Mars. It will include a drill as well as new scientific instruments, designed to collect soil and rocks that could indicate habitable conditions in the ancient past and even potential signs of past microbial life.
Then there is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, on which the spacecraft discovered water in 2018. The plan for the spacecraft is for it to briefly touch the asteroid’s surface and extend a robotic arm, which will collect a small sample and bring it back to Earth for study by 2023. In NASA’s words: “The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.3
Beyond helping to solve the mysteries of existence, several asteroids have an estimated worth in the order of tens of billon dollars. The near-earth asteroid, Ryugu, for example, is said to be worth $83 billion, due to its contents of nickel, iron and cobalt. For years, asteroid mining has been mentioned as a potentially lucrative business, triggering several start-ups with purposes ranging from unlock the critical water resources necessary for human expansion in space to returning the first non-government lunar samples to Earth.Robots fixing up satellites
There is a lot of research going into exploring how robots can be used to prolong the life of satellites, or to improve their operational capabilities. The objective of ESA’s project European Robotic Orbital Support Services (EROSS)4 is to demonstrate solutions for servicing of LEO and GEO satellites. The project, which is headed by Thales Alenia Space, will assess and demonstrate the capability of an on-orbit servicing spacecraft to perform rendezvous, capturing, grasping, berthing and manipulating of a collaborative target satellite provisioned for servicing operations, including refuelling and payload transfer/replacement. EROSS will also look at more complex robotic operations like orbital transfer services of non-collaborative satellites, that may be used in e.g. commissioning or decommissioning of existing satellites.
Improving reliability and extending lifetime of expensive satellites could become healthy business case for satellite operators and may influence future satellite designs and risk tolerance strategies. Assuming there are currently 2000 active satellites with an average investment cost of $100 million, the total asset value of the total satellite fleet is $200 billion. Assuming a satellite lifetime of 10 years, a satellite servicing technology providing an 10% lifetime extension for just half this fleet, would result in a one year delay for reinvestment of 100B$, assuming the satellite services are to be continued. Such back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate enormous economic benefits for satellite operators and a highly attractive market opportunity for servicing technologies, even before 2025.
There also exist some early commercial initiatives, for example Space Logistics’ Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) TM, the first commercial satellite servicing spacecraft ever built5. It’s intended to dock with existing satellites to provide the propulsion and attitude control needed to extend their lives. The first vehicle of this kind, MEV-1, was launched in October 2019 for the purpose of handling station keeping for Intelsat-901, which has been operational since 2001 and is currently low on fuel. Space Logistics claims that their docking system can clamp onto 80% of today’s geosynchronous (GEO) satellites.
NASA is planning a similar mission in 2020, when it intends send a spacecraft with two robotic arms to refuel an Earth Observation (EO)satellite that was launched in 1999, LandSat-76. Another example is Effective Space, a British and Israeli startup, which is building a fleet of robotic spacecraft called Space Drone, with the purpose of prolonging the lives of communications satellites that would otherwise be decommissioned for lack of fuel for station-keeping, i.e. maintaining their proper orbits7.A space junk clean-up job
Around 900 000 space objects (of size >1 cm) with a total weight of 8400 tonnes is thought to be floating in Earth orbit8, carrying a risk of collision with operational missions. In 2018, a European consortium led by Surrey Space Centre sent the spacecraft “RemoveDEBRIS” to the International Space Station by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, designed to test ways of capturing this junk by firing a net. In September that year, the first successful test was reported and is claimed to be the first demonstration of active debris removal (ADR) technology. In early 2019, a new successful experiment tested launching a harpoon from RemoveDEBRIS, striking a target plate extended from the satellite. The abovementioned ESA project EROSS project also aims study and perform debris removal for a broad range of missions, from LEO to GEO and beyond.
However, while there is a push from a sustainability point-of-view, commercial incentives for developing and deploying robotic technology in assisting clean-up operations are not clear. Space debris-clearing technology development and take-up is reliant on government funding and incentives for private companies; a dependency particularly challenging when other methods already exist, such as debris monitoring and collision avoidance methods. However, it does remain a commercial opportunity, especially in the absence of government funding. Japan-based Astroscale has reached $132 million in investment during early 2019 for its junk removal plan and the small but growing market for space cleanup is becoming a viable investment opportunity9. However, robots for space mining and space junk collection are expected to have slower adoption (2025 and beyond) than application to space mining due to technical complexity, cost and lack of commercial incentives.
Header image: Courtesy of SINTEF/ShutterstockContributors
DNV GL is grateful to Gordon Campbell, Director, Science, Applications and Future Technologies Department, Directorate of EO Programmes at the European Space Agency (ESA) and Dag Anders Moldestad Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Space Agency for the valuable discussions.
Main author: Steinar Lag
Editor: Tiffany Hildre
- Merz,Transeth,Johansen,Bjerkeng: “Snake Robots for Space Applications (SAROS)”, SINTEF REPORT No 2017:00453