As long as humans have been exploring space, we’ve relied on robots to help us get the job done.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a 184-pound, beach-ball-sized aluminum satellite named Sputnik 1. In its low-Earth orbit, the beeping, unmanned spacecraft initiated the space age. And in the years since the Apollo program wrapped in 1972, remote-controlled spacecraft like rovers, landers and orbiters have taken on the lion’s share of space exploration beyond satellite territory, where we task them with performing experiments, snapping photos and collecting samples on our behalf.
And the role of space robots is set to expand. In 2024, NASA embarks on its Artemis Program, which plans to establish a long-term presence on the moon. Robots will lay some of the groundwork, build structures and deliver payloads to the moon. They’ll even keep astronauts company.
As it turns out, robots are an efficient alternative to launching manned spacecrafts. They not only come with a fraction of the risk, but also at a fraction of the cost.
To get a better sense of how robots are being used in space, check out the list below. From space-junk-collecting claws to all-terrain robodogs, these semi-autonomous machines withstand harsh conditions in zero gravity to aid missions and automate space exploration.
7 Robots Furthering Space Exploration
CADRE, a Trio of Mini Rovers
Rovers gather first-hand data about moons and planets by driving about the terrain and taking samples of a surface’s crust. Their success has led NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop CADRE, a trio of autonomous, shoebox-sized rovers programmed to work together as a team. Each four-wheeled robot has two stereo cameras and a number of sensors. While they independently map surfaces and collect measurements, the mini rovers form a cooperative network, communicating back and forth with one another via radio signals. The multi-robot system is slated for a mission in 2024, where the mini rovers will spend a full lunar day — about 14 Earth days — exploring the moon’s Reiner Gamma region, creating a three-dimensional topographic map of its surface and tripling the efficiency of any previous solo mission.
GLIMPSE, a Space-bound Robo-dog
Dogs will be returning to space — but this time in mechanical form. Based on the robotics used to build viral robo-dog ANYmal, GLIMPSE is a quadrupedal machine will be used to traverse the tricky terrain of the moon’s south polar region, believed to contain valuable resources — like metals, water and oxygen contained in rock reservoirs — that could be used to build structures or sustain life during lunar-based operations. The space-bound robodog, developed by public research university ETH Zürich, comes with a variety of zoom-lense spectrometers that can recognize rock types. Referencing its four-legged build, Hendrik Kolvenbach, the scientific director of the GLIMPSE project, told The Daily Beast that walking machines may provide advantages over wheel-based systems when it comes to rocky terrain and steep slopes, enabling “scientific discovery in areas where wheeled rovers are not able to go.” Depending on further tests, the European Space Agency may be recruiting GLIMPSE for lunar exploration in the next decade.
OSAM-1, a Satellite Repair Robot
There are approximately 10,290 satellites orbiting Earth, of which only 7,800 are operational. To improve upon their average lifespan — an estimated 10 years at best — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is building an unmanned spacecraft, named OSAM-1, created to rehabilitate aging satellites that were not originally designed to be serviced. Making way for space-based construction, OSAM-1 is equipped to refuel, relocate and repair malfunctioning satellites with its three robotic arms, a real-time navigation system and propellant transfer system. Its first mission, which consists of refueling the Landsat 7 satellite while assembling and installing an antenna and boom mid flight, is scheduled for 2026.
R5: Valkyrie, an All-electric, Remote-controlled Humanoid
To be clear, NASA’s remote-controlled humanoid R5, nicknamed Valkyrie, may never make it to space; however, this six-foot-two, 300-pound, bipedal prototype has been in development since 2013, and serves as the template for every model — like Apollo — to follow in its footsteps. Valkyrie can “see” using various cameras and sensors, as well as an infrared-transparent faceplate protecting a LiDAR sensor, and move via numerous small motors that permit the body to enjoy 44 degrees of freedom. Fully battery powered, the all-electric robot can use tools, navigate difficult terrain between two programmed plot points, sustain brutal weather conditions and even dance to techno. In terms of its purpose, Valkyrie is classified as a “caretaker robot.” This means that it’s designed to assist human space exploration by assembling equipment from scratch or handling maintenance repairs ahead of a crew’s arrival. NASA sees Valkyrie playing a potential role in its Artemis missions, using the robot to prepare long-term, living compounds on the moon or Mars.
MIRA, a Tiny Surgical Robot
MIRA is a miniature robot-assisted surgical system designed to save space and time. Weighing just two pounds, the minimally invasive device can move from room-to-room, performing laparoscopic, single-incision surgeries without the need for draping, docking or moving equipment. While originally intended as a cost-effective solution to meet demand and ease turnover in earthside hospitals, MIRA is now being considered as a possible tool for emergency medical intervention during space flight after NASA awarded a $100,000 grant to its developers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The handheld, surgical robot is set for launch in 2024, to perform simulated surgical testing aboard the International Space Station.
ClearSpace-1, an Outer Space Trash Collector
ClearSpace-1 is a half-ton, debris-removal spacecraft. Its main body is made up of four robotic arms that resemble a claw machine. Switzerland-based startup Clearspace designed these vessels to clutch space junk — dead satellites or leftover rocket-launching materials, for example — then “de-orbit” the junk with a high-velocity “destructive reentry” into Earth’s atmosphere. Teaming with the European Space Agency, ClearSpace-1’s debut mission is scheduled for March 2025, when it plans to remove a 200-pound, decade-old defunct rocket part the size of a washing machine. If successful, the €86 million effort will be the first effort to clean up outer space — marking one down, and more than 200,000 pieces to go.
EELS, a Bionic Space Snake
Short for ‘exobiology extant life surveyor,’ the EELS project is being developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to seek out signs of life potentially hidden below the icy exterior of a Saturn moon named Enceladus. The inspiration to model the slithery anatomy of snakes and eels is linked to the celestial body’s terrain, which hosts more than a hundred geysers that spew water, vapor and ice particles into space. The idea is that the 13-foot bionic serpent would descend into the narrow vents, and autonomously “map, traverse and explore” the underground ocean. According to NASA’s website, this space robot can undulate through steep craters, subsurface lava tubes and intra-glacial labyrinths.
Frequently Asked Questions
What robots are used in space?
Orbiters, landers and rovers are three common types of space-oriented robots. Increasingly, robots are being used to support the work of astronauts, like repairing machinery mid-flight or delivering AI-powered assistance on demand.
What is space robotics called?
Space robotics can also be referred to as “microgravity robotics,” “planetary robotics” or “orbital robotics,” depending on a spacecraft’s function.