What Does It Take for a Robot to Survive in Space?

If you know anything about science-fiction, you know that aliens are constantly giving humans the business about our unimpressive physiology: “How do they keep their blood inside with skin that thin?” “Don’t they know they’re mostly water?”

The good news for our robotics and space programs is that human beings can build machines that vastly outperform us in durability. It takes some clever engineering, but humanity regularly builds probes and robots that can survive long journeys through some truly astonishing conditions.

Here’s a look at what it takes for a robot to survive the depths of space.

Why Robots Need ‘Thick Skin’

Space looks empty and cold – but is it, really? Photos of the Cosmos look fairly tranquil, but a great deal of it lacks shelter and any kind of filtration from solar and other types of radiation.

Then, there are clouds of dust and larger “projectiles” to worry about, some of which may be traveling at 22,300 miles per hour or faster. NASA has many robotic assets on the ground, in earth’s orbit, and far beyond. Over the years, they have adopted more and more advanced debris tracking and collision avoidance systems to keep spacecraft, telescopes, and satellites nimble in their journey.

The reaches of space aren’t the only environments these robots explore. The surfaces of nearby planets and other bodies are inhospitable to humans and rovers alike. The color palette on display on Mars makes it look balmy, but its mood swings can be violent. Daytime temperatures hover around 71°F, but they can plummet overnight to a bone- and everything-else-chilling -146°F.

Characteristics of a Spacefaring Robot

A robot destined for space must have the following characteristics:

  • Parts tested apart and together: Making a robot “flight qualified” usually involves stress-testing individual components separately, assembling them, and then testing them again. Sensitive electronics and other parts, therefore, may be tested several times each at various points of assembly.
  • Strong enough to survive lift-off: Robots, rovers, and interstellar probes all leave earth’s gravity well the same way: via rockets. If this equipment isn’t tested to withstand harsh vibrations and sudden acceleration. Satellites and other remote robotic assets must be tested against three times the force of earth’s gravity, in order to simulate a real launch.
  • Resilient against a huge range of temperatures: Robots are more resilient than humans in the face of extreme temperatures, but outer space and planetary exploration still pose a huge challenge. NASA designed the Exploration rover on Mars to withstand extreme temperatures across both night and day.

Not surprisingly, a lot of work went into protecting the vital “organs” of the Exploration rover as well as the other interplanetary and interstellar vehicles, probes and robots we’ve sent into space. Components like batteries, processors, and other electronics receive active heating in a module NASA calls the “warm electronics box,” or “WEB.”

Receiving machine condition reports on a regular basis is hugely important here too. Thermostats and heat switches can help the robot adjust its own temperature or warn remote operators of potentially harmful conditions.

Thermal insulation is another method for keeping robots with delicate mechanical and electronic components warm and safe. This is the gold foil you’ll often see adorning spacecraft and rover parts. This is sometimes made of actual gold and sometimes it’s crafted from aluminum – whatever the mission profile and the anticipate “energy bands” require.

Robots and the Secrets of Space

In some ways, spacefaring robots even take after our beloved terrestrial automobiles. Cars use radiators to shed excess heat, and robots do something similar when temperatures begin to rise again come earthrise. Literal radiators and other heat rejection systems can spring into action to help cool hard-working processors, manipulation tools and other electronic and mechanical components.

No matter how they get their work done, though, robots are an important part of humanity’s future. Whether they’re uncovering the mysteries of earth in deep ocean trenches or helping us reach out across vast expanses of space, robots are here to stay – and learn.

Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance STEM writer and blogger. She's the editor of Schooled By Science and regularly contributes to sites like The Naked Scientists and Inhabitat. Keep up with Megan by following her on Twitter and subscribing to her blog.
Megan Ray Nichols

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