Can Robots Survive in Space?

Gone are the times when robots were only a part of science fiction, comic books, and Hollywood movies. 

Robots are now a reality that not many can deny. They are overcoming industries thanks to the increased precision, accuracy, and flexibility they provide. 

In addition to this, robots do not need food and water to survive. They are not dependent on oxygen and they certainly do not bleed. 

Considering all these phenomenal traits, a few decades ago, scientists realized that robots can be the answer to our curiosities about the heavens and the cosmos. 

There are several parts of the universe that mankind would like to explore. However, the limitations of food, time, and other resources prevent astronauts from visiting these locations and collecting data. 

That is where robots come in. To date, more than 500 humans have already flown to space but as electronic technologies developed, it was clear that sending robots for data collection was way cheaper.

Moreover, even if the robot mission fails, the humans involved in the mission remain safe.

However, robots have to be built such that they can survive the harsh condition of space. 

When we talk about robots in space, many people don’t really understand how can robots survive in space. 

Unfortunately,  there are hardly any authentic resources that answer the common questions related to robots in space as a whole.

Hence, this article has been specifically curated to talk about what it takes to make robots that are capable of surviving in space. 

Robots can survive in space as they are designed to withstand impact, survive extreme temperature variations and endure dangerous radiations. Components of robots are tested and retested for quality assurance.

Why Do We Need to Send Robots to Space?

All the information mentioned in this article is moot if you don’t know the answer to why is there a need to send robots to space?

Since the start of time, mankind has always wondered what was the nature of objects floating and flickering in the sky.

After sending several crewed and un-crewed spacecraft to the areas of the universe that are beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, it was realized that sending robots to collect data is more convenient, cheap, and viable.

Scientists don’t have to worry about their food and their nature calls.

Even though building and testing robots can be expensive, they have proved valuable for space exploration, since they can do many things humans cannot.

From taking measurements to collecting and analyzing samples, robots are designed to help humans make sense of the cosmos.

In addition to this, they can patch themselves up if something goes wrong, how many humans can do that?

Each robot is designed for a certain purpose. You might have heard about the Mars Rover that is roaming around the surface of Mars sending data back to the Earth.

Then there is Perseverance, another Robot sent to Mars to study a region of the planet called the Jezero Crater. It is designed to send back information about the planet’s past microbial life.

In addition to these, the engineers at NASA and other space agencies are constantly working on new robots as well.

One of the latest robots NASA engineers are working on is A-PUFFER. This robot is inspired by Origami and is designed to explore scout regions on the Moon.

What Does a Robot Need to Survive in Space?

Just like humans, robots also have to undergo a lot of training, and scientists have to put in great effort to ensure all parts of the robot are protected from the elements of space.

For a robot to survive in space, it needs to have the following characteristics:

  • It should be flight-qualified and all the components should pass the stress testing.
  • It should be strong enough to survive lift-off without the slightest damage.
  • It should be able to withstand a huge range of temperatures.

When we look at the sky, the cosmos look tranquil and peaceful. However, in reality, it’s far from that.

From high amounts of radiation to a projectile of space dust, anything can hit the robot anytime and from any direction.

So, the engineers have to take extra care while protecting important components like batteries, sensors, and other electronics.

All these parts undergo active heating tests as well to ensure they can survive the vast difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures.

Just to give you an idea, the daytime temperatures at Mars go up to 71°F, and at night, the temperatures plummet to -146°F.

Robots are Tough and Can Withstand Impacts

Keeping the conditions of the space in mind, the robots are built to endure harsh weather conditions, harsh vibrations, sudden acceleration, and impacts.

Unlike humans, that cannot survive the harsh conditions of space without constant aid, robots can.

Since they are designed while keeping the atmosphere and environment of space in mind, they prove to be much stronger.

They are constructed using the highest-quality material and are programmed to react to the changing environment. They are a sophisticated combination of hardware and software.

Moreover, robots don’t bleed. Even if a robot falls from a high place, is hit by a rock or space debris or a sudden gust of high-speed wind sends it off-track, it can make its way back.

Moreover, most robots are designed to fix any minor injuries to the structure or the system on their own.

Robots Can Survive Even the Most Dangerous Lift-Off

While designing robots, one of the major considerations that engineers take into account is that they should survive lift-offs.

Lift-offs can be harsh and difficult to endure. Humans undergo months and years of training just to be able to deal with the sudden acceleration and harsh vibrations, yet they are unable to shake off the effects for a few days.

Robots and probes designed for space exploration leave the Earth’s gravity and environment the same way.

This means they are subjected to similar vibrations and acceleration. However, since they are specifically designed to endure the harshest of conditions, they can easily stay intact during the lift-off, that too, without throwing up.

These machines are tested and re-tested a couple of times using simulators to ensure they will survive even the most dangerous life-offs.

The Extreme Temperatures of Space

As mentioned, even though space looks all peaceful and beautiful from the Earth, its mood swings can be quite harsh.

Temperatures can go from freezing to blazing within a matter of a few hours.

Thus, space robots are designed using materials that do not contract and expand with varying temperatures. This way, despite constant exposure to such extreme temperatures, their parts do not malfunction.

One of the ways this is achieved is by thermal insulation. The insulation is used to keep delicate parts of the robot warm and safe.

You might have seen robots with gold tin foil wrapped around them, this foil is sometimes crafted using aluminum while at times. it is made of actual gold. 

The type and level of insulation required by robots depend on the mission profile and the type of radiation the robot is expected to deal with.

In addition to this, the robot is also equipped with radiators, thermostats, and heat switches that help the machine adjust its own temperature.

Exposure to the Vacuum of Space

On top of all the hostile space conditions, another obstacle robots must overcome is the vacuum.

One would question how does vacuum affects something that is not alive and does not need air to survive.

Since these space robots have been designed in the Earth’s atmosphere, all the materials used are under a certain amount of pressure during the construction phase.

In space, when these items are subjected to vacuum and zero pressure, the air bubbles inside the materials start coming to the surface disrupting the integrity of the robot as well as its parts.

However, before sending the robot to space, it is tested under zero pressure in labs to ensure it can survive a vacuum.

The materials used for their construction are non-porous which means there are no air bubbles that will affect the integrity of the structure.

Inhospitable Atmospheric Conditions

It is no secret that space is inhospitable for all living beings except a few types of bacteria.

This is why living in space for an extended period can be dangerous for humans. However, the same rules do not apply to robots.

They do not need food to eat or air to breathe, so the inhospitable atmospheric conditions neither affect their functionality nor limit their time in space.

Robots Can Withstand Dangerous Emissions and Radiation

Since space has no atmosphere at all, radiation from the stars travels very fast. These radiations can not only degrade the structure of the robot but can also lead its components to failure.

These robots must operate in an environment with pervasive radiation consisting of a mixture of particles.

However, that is not it, the radiation levels can plummet or ascend within a matter of few hours. So, the robot has to adjust its operations accordingly.

Keeping this in mind, engineers design space robots such that most of the radiation is not able to penetrate the structure. This way, they cannot affect the electronics.

There are three main types of radiation that scientists have to worry about. These include:

  • Galactic cosmic rays (GCRs)
  • Trapped radiation (especially the Earth and Jupiter)
  • Solar particle events (protons and other heavy nuclei)

Robots Are a Lot Stronger than Humans

As mentioned, robots undergo intensive testing to ensure they can survive in space.

Since they have been designed to replace humans in space, they make up for everything humans lack.

They are self-cleaning, don’t require a lot of maintenance, they can deal with malfunctions on their own and they don’t bleed.

In addition to this, they can survive boiling and freezing temperatures, harsh radiations, impacts, falls, interaction with space dust, and the space vacuum without any external aid.

There are rovers on Mars that have been in operation for the last 20 years. Most space robots tend to outlive the initial life expectancy.

The only cost endured was their production cost. Since these machines are easy to repair and maintain, keeping them alive is not costly.

Robots Are A Lot Easier to Fuel

For humans, living comes at a cost. The cost of food, air, and other necessities of life.

Compared to this, when we talk about robots, their cost of living is next to negligible.

Space robots have solar panels that are used to charge their batteries. As soon as the robot’s battery hits a certain level, it automatically halts all functions and starts charging.

The solar panels are hidden inside the robot and are only exposed when the batteries are low. This not only prevents overcharging but also protects the panels from damaging elements.

Robots Are a Lot Easier to Repair

Most space robots can fix minute malfunctions on their own. If there is a software issue, that can be fixed by engineers on the Earth.

Modern space robots are even designed to repair and replace critical parts on their own without any help.

In addition to this, rovers can even be used to fix each other. For example, in 2014, Canada’s space agency led a mission where its handyman robot dubbed Dextre repaired the International Space Station’s robotic arm.

This is a task that once belonged to spacewalking astronauts. Similar robots can be used to deal with hazy cameras, malfunctioning solar panels, or even battery replacement tasks.

Sending a robot to fix another robot still costs less than sending a team of humans with food, clothing, and toilet necessities.

Contemporary Space-Faring Robots

Space robots come in different shapes and sizes. They are designed according to the type of mission that awaits them.

For example, engineers at NASA recently developed a robot called Hedgehog. It has eight rubber corners and is designed to explore small bodies like comets and asteroids.

Since such bodies have very rough terrain and little gravity, robots like Hedgehog can hop and tumble their way to different locations while collecting data.

Then there is BRUIE, NASA’s robot specifically designed for icy cold water. It can even stick to ice underwater and explore the area while taking pictures.

When we talk about contemporary robots, many individuals wonder whether NASA is developing human-like robots and will they be sent to space or not?

The answer to this is yes, NASA has developed several robots that look like humans and these are called humanoids.

They are currently being developed in order to prepare for a potential future settlement on Mars. Some of the humanoids developed by NASA include R5 and Valkyrie.

Conclusion

The amount of money allocated for space exploration has declined since the 1960s. However, space agencies are using a chunk of the budget to develop space robots that can help scientists get new insights into the cosmos.

Recently, it was announced that NASA has partnered with nine U.S. aerospace companies to send several space robots to the Moon.

In addition to this, the Russian Space Agency is working on sending a humanoid robot to the International Space Station in the upcoming years.

Considering how advanced these robots are, in the future, robots are expected to completely replace humans in space. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

How long can a robot last in space?

This depends on the mission but on average, a robot is expected to survive for 10 to 15 years in space. 

How many robots went to space?

Over the years, NASA has sent several robots to space, out of these five have been sent to Mars. 

Why are humans better than robots in space?

Although robots have a better chance of survival, humans have better problem-solving skills. 

Is anyone lost in space?

To date, a total of 18 people have lost their lives in space or while preparing for space travel.