If you’re including all robotic spacecraft, such as satellites, rovers, and space probes, then there are thousands of robots currently in space (specifically 7,500 when it comes to active satellites, as of September 2021).
There are also six well known humanoid space robots, some of which are currently in space while others are still earthbound in development.
Humanoid robots have been designed by NASA and other space agencies to help the work they do in space. By developing humanoid robots and other kinds of robotic spacecraft, there are multiple benefits: enriched scientific knowledge, advances in AI (artificial intelligence) technology, and conservation of human life.
The following article will outline the history of robots in space, the future of robots in space, and some of the most notable examples of robots designed for space.
Which Robots Are Currently In Space?
As well as Robonaut 2, which has been on the International Space Station since it was sent up in 2011 and will be discussed shortly, there are a number of robotic spacecraft currently in space.
These include the Hubble Space Telescope, Dextre, Cassini, Rosetta, Dawn, Mars Express, Curiosity, Opportunity, 2001 Mars Odyssey, Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), Hayabusa 2, Juno, Voyager 1, Mars Orbiter Mission, and New Horizons.
Let’s look at some of the most notable robotic spacecraft currently operating in space.
The Hubble Space Telescope is both an observational tool and a robot. It’s best known for discovering a new moon by Neptune, measuring the rate at which the universe is expanding, and documenting the birthplaces of new stars.
Cassini is often referred to as the ‘big golden turkey’ by Jet Propulsion Lab, and observed Jupiter for six months before proceeding to Saturn back in 2004. It’s currently on its second mission.
Dawn has four spectrometers, as well as an ion propulsion system which allows it to orbit two extraterrestrial destinations. Currently it’s in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and it was the first spacecraft ever to orbit a dwarf planet. One of the many meteorites it has discovered is the giant asteroid called Vesta.
The Hayabusa 2 is a Japanese spacecraft designed for setting off a small bomb on an asteroid and using a camera to observe the crater made by the explosion.
The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) is the first interplanetary effort from India. It was the first Asian spacecraft to reach the orbit of Mars.
Why Do We Send Robots To Space?
There are a number of benefits to sending robots to space. One of these benefits is that the risk for humans is greatly reduced. While it’s important that space agencies keep their robots safe while in space (because complications could set back advancements in scientific knowledge, as well as cost more money), ultimately there’s less risk than if it were a human.
Space is dangerous, obviously, so if there’s any jobs that can be done without the involvement of humans then space agencies are usually going to choose robots.
It’s also far cheaper to send robots into space than to send humans. They don’t need to sleep, or eat, or use the bathroom. Space agencies don’t even have to worry about getting robots back to Earth- they can survive in space for decades or more.
While they’re in space, they’ll be experiencing harsh conditions that humans wouldn’t be able to withstand. Robots have the ability to cope with extreme temperatures and high levels of radiation with ease. There are also certain jobs that robots need to do, because they would be impossible for humans.
The History Of Robots In Space
The history of robots in space began in 1970, when the Soviet spacecraft known as Venera 7 landed on Venus, and became the first unmanned space probe to land on another planet and transmit data back to Earth.
Two years later the American spacecrafts Pioneer 10 & 11 were sent to Jupiter and Saturn. These were the first manmade objects to cross the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Eventually they left our solar system, becoming the first two robotic spacecraft to do so. They don’t send signals to Earth anymore, but they continue to go further into space.
In November of 1970, one year after Armstrong and his fellow astronauts became the first humans to step foot on the Moon, the USSR sent up a robotic lunar rover. The Lunokhod 1 was the first spacecraft to successfully land on the Moon.
Until the summer of 1971, the rover traveled over 10 kilometers across the surface of the Moon. It was operated back on Earth by the Soviet Union. 10 kilometers is a phenomenal distance, even now- NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity has traveled 12 kilometers over six years.
Once the Lunokhod 1 had completed its transmissions, NASA landed their first moon buggy (or lunar rover) in July 1971. It was part of the manned Apollo 15 mission, and was the first vehicle ever to be driven on the Moon.
The Apollo 15 Moon Buggy allowed the astronauts on the mission to travel further than their landing site, meaning they could collect a wider range of samples from the lunar surface. From then on, every rover sent to space has taken inspiration from the Apollo 15 Moon Buggy.
Following the development of NASA’s Robonaut 1, which was designed to test the technology on Earth, Robonaut 2 was sent to the International Space Station in 2011.
It was created in collaboration with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which is a branch of the United States military. Robonaut 2’s purpose is to handle some of the more tedious tasks on the space station.
The humanoid Robonaut 2 has legs, otherwise known as special climbing manipulators, which allow it to cling to surfaces. They were delivered in 2014- before then, it carried out tasks in a stationary position. NASA is currently working on a similar project called the Active Response Gravity Offload System.
Other Humanoid Robots Designed For Space
One of the other humanoid robots that’s been to space is Kirono, designed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. In 2013 it had its first conversation in space, with astronaut Koichi Wakata. It can also recognise human faces, voices, and emotions.
The RoboSimian is actually more ape than human. Designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, it’s a powerful machine whose purpose is to use lidar tech to map its environment in 3D. It’s very flexible, and can easily navigate rough terrain, as well as carry out tasks which require dexterity.
The Future Of Robots In Space
NASA continues to invest in robots designed for space. They recently partnered with nine other American aerospace companies in order to send small robots up to the Moon.
The Russian Space Agency also intends to send a humanoid robot up to the International Space Station. The future of robotic spacecraft is uncertain, but certainly one to watch.
Conclusion: How Many Robots Are In Space?
There are currently many robots in space. Most of these are robotic spacecraft such as unmanned satellites, rovers, and space probes. The total number of robotic spacecraft currently operating is hard to quantify, but there are roughly 7,500 satellites currently in space.
There are also humanoid robots designed to ease the jobs of the astronauts on the International Space Station- Robonaut 2 has been on the ISS since 2011. NASA continues to develop robots to send into space, so we will be seeing more of them in the future.
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