Space. Tech. Futures that empower. Research conducted | views expressed are my own.
Getting to space is half the journey. Rockets, launches, landers, and new space helicopters capture our attention and imagination nowadays.
And rightly so.
The efforts to scale transportation beyond Low Earth Orbit to the Moon and Mars are significant in our evolution towards our spacefaring future.
However, how will we expand and thrive in space?
Any sustainable plans for long-duration space research, travel, and exploration require advanced in-space robotics that leverage increased machine intelligence. Robots that are remote-controlled, partially autonomous, and fully autonomous are the key to our progress in space.
This month of February was busy with several robotic spacecraft missions to Mars. Consider UAE’s Hope Probe, China’s Tianwen-1, and NASA’s Perseverance.
We depend 100% on these robotic spacecraft missions to visit the harsh terrains of other worlds and withstand the cosmic radiation of interplanetary space. We also lean on service robots onboard the International Space Station, such as the Canadian Space Agency’s Dextre, which currently supports pivotal functions. Robots in space are becoming as significant and as pioneering as humans in space.
Before I zoom into the topic, let me set out a couple of my premises first:
The pace and speed of our progress in space depend on the advances in robotic autonomy that leverage machine intelligence to enhance the robot’s ability to detect, diagnose, and respond to unexpected conditions.
The commercialization and the democratization (opening up) of the space economy also apply to advances in robotics. Increased support and attention could be specifically allocated to these commercial efforts because, in a similar way to what the mechanization of manufacturing helped us forge quickly during the First Industrial Revolution, the advances in robotics will help us achieve in the upcoming revolution in space.
There are nuanced and complex ethical questions in the field of robotics, commercial or not, autonomous or not. These questions will only increase over time because there are also important sociocultural and political considerations.
I refer to the
Frankenstein complex, as coined by the prolific writer Isaac Asimov, or the uncanny valley, as explained by Professor Masahiro Mori. Advances in robotics represent something more than just technological innovations.
This case is especially true for space.
Robots for In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)
I had the fantastic opportunity to discuss at length some of these topics with Diego Urbina.
Diego works as the Team Lead and Systems Architect of Future Projects and Exploration at the Brussels-based aerospace company, Space Applications Services NV/SA. He focuses on projects about human and robotic exploration in Earth-based and extra-terrestrial extreme environments. A Colombian-born Italian citizen, Diego has an extensive background in electronic engineering and space systems engineering and serves as faculty at the International Space University – ISU.
Diego Urbina. December 2020.
Diego also formed part of the Mars500 Crew in 2010 – 2011. Sponsored by Russia, the European Space Agency, and China, the groundbreaking Mars500 project set the record for the first full duration analog simulation of human spaceflight to Mars. Diego and the Mars500 Crew clocked 520 days in isolation at the mockup spacecraft facility in Moscow.
When I asked him about his entryway to the space industry and the field of robotics, he explained:
“My journey is particular because I wasn’t interested in space when I was young and growing up in Colombia. I didn’t know that I could pursue a career in space. Before the widespread use of digital communications and the Internet, there weren’t many references beyond seeing what NASA was doing on TV. When I undertook my university studies in Italy, I had the opportunity to focus on the design and simulation of a star tracker for a nanosatellite in my thesis. I started learning about astronomy, and I really fell in love with space… Over time, I learned that there are multiple paths to space. Along the way, I was inspired by my studies at the International Space University and by the work of the European Space Agency. I was motivated to meet so many people with maybe little experience but lots of enthusiasm for space. I also met those with lots of experience in the space industry having worked for NASA and space companies.”
At Space Applications Services NV/SA, Diego and his colleagues work on in-space assembly technologies and standards for the Moon. Building and making on-site to bootstrap for the Lunar economy with what’s available instead of depending on supplies from Earth. This is called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) in the industry.
Their most recent project, LUVMI-X, is prototyping a lunar rover that can carry two payload bays for experimental instruments and prospect for resources in the extremely cold and permanently shadowed regions – PSR at the Lunar pole craters.
Being able to access these craters is valuable for a variety of scientific reasons. The residues of ice-carrying comets that have impacted the surface could be a source of water. NASA’s robotic Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – LRO measured the solar system’s coldest documented temperatures (below 30 Kelvin) in these craters.
With a launch projected for 2024, the LUVMI-X would help refine the understanding of the properties and composition of trapped water.
LUVMI-X. Space Applications Services NV/SA
Diego and his team at Space Applications Services NV/SA are also working on the design of a payload for the European Space Agency – ESA Lunar ISRU Demonstration Mission (ISRU-DM). They continue the work on the in-laboratory demonstration of the excavation and processing of the Lunar regolith (thin superficial layer) to extract its oxygen.
Oxygen is one of the most single most abundant elements in the regolith. It is composed of approximately 40 – 45 percent oxygen by weight. This source of oxygen is advantageous to ISRU. It is exorbitantly cost-inefficient to carry oxygen to the Moon to sustain human life and serve as an oxidizing agent in chemical rockets. The team has also prototyped the REGOLIGHT system. REGOLIGHT seeks to print medium and large-sized infrastructures in 3D by welding lunar regolith with the aid of solar rays.
Diego pointed out the following:
“In several years, the hope is that everything that we’re talking about will not be like science fiction but a reality in the broader cislunar and space economy. A reality that works like the economy the generates jobs on Earth, that can develop conveniences like a supermarket, opportunities like those for a mining company, transportation like an Uber in space, etc. I’d like to see a sustainable space economy that creates more opportunities in the supply-value chains for more stakeholders and industries. A sustainable economy reduces transportation costs to space and therefore facilitates the creation of Lunar or Martian cities.”
Previous market studies estimate whopping revenues for the usage of on-site resources and technologies. The SpaceResources.lu initiative by the Luxembourg Space Agency published a forward-looking report in 2018.
According to the report, the expectation is that from 2018 to 2045, ISRU would generate a market revenue of 73 to 170 billion euros. They forecast an additional economic impact of 2.5 billion euros over the next 50 years as the knowledge and tech cascade and intersect with other areas.
SpaceResource.lu. Luxembourg Space Agency.
Diego emphasizes the need to pay more attention to the topic of robotic-led ISRU, and in particular, to self-replicating robots. At its most simple definition, self-replicating robots can produce copies of themselves, parts of themselves, or robots that can generate replicas of the original robot.
“What is underestimated and is not capturing people’s attention are the initiatives about in-space assembly-manufacturing and self-replicating robots. In the future, as the costs for launch to space will reduce, in-space robotics technologies will have exponential growth. Once we achieve the milestone of robots in space that can reproduce and create more robots, this will change the industry’s panorama. Figuring out what we do once we get there is important. In-space assembly and robotics will facilitate these efforts…”
Self-Replicating Robots: Previews of a Future Nearby
Diego brings up an important insight about the potential of self-replicating robots (SRRs) as part of the bootstrapping on-site – ISRU mindset. With data latency issues and the risks of failure and impairment due to unforeseen circumstances, SRRs could allow space missions to continue without interruption.
I have read some of the history and cutting-edge research about the concept of self-reproducing automata (machine / device) pioneered by the Hungarian-born polymath John von Neumann. A striking set of papers that I liked about self-reproducing robots for space, and which I’d like to highlight here, were published in 2002 by a team at the Department of Mechanical Engineering in John Hopkins University.
Authors Gregory S. Chirikjian, Jackrit Suthakorn, and Yu Zhou published Self-Replicating Robots for Space Utilization and Self-Replicating Robots for Lunar Development. Their premises echo those of Diego. The importance of SRRs cannot be underestimated.
Chirikjian et al. write:
“New technologies such as horizontal take-off and horizontal landing “aerospace planes” will make access to low-earth orbit (LEO) more accessible during the next 20 years, but will not solve the problems associated with launching massive amounts of material beyond LEO…The development of lunar resources over the period 2020–2040 has the potential to change this relatively grim picture. If significant portions of the moon can be used for solar energy collection, and its regolith can be effectively strip mined and processed, then the resulting energy and materials can be transported to LEO or elsewhere in the solar system at a relatively low energetic cost. This circumvents much of the energetic cost of transporting massive amounts of materials from the earth’s surface, and reduces the atmospheric pollution that would result from unnecessary launches…”
According to the authors, self-replicating robots are relevant for a sustainable settlement and exploration on the Moon. Their architecture and discussions for SRRs contemplate leveraging the solar energy and lunar regolith in tandem with mobile robots, solar panels, units for materials processing and assembly, and electromagnetic rail guns to transport long-distance.
“Because of its significant impact on the utilization of space, we studied the proliferation of self-replicating robots on the surface of the moon. In our model, each self-replicating robotic factory consists of robots, materials processing capabilities, solar energy production, and electromagnetic rail guns for transportation of replicas and materials to new locations… Space is a domain of unlimited resources. Unfortunately, the cost of reaching space is very high. Self-replicating autonomous factories will be vital if man is to exploit space resources. Self-replicating robotic systems are a necessary ingredient for self-replicating robotic factories to become a reality.”
Chirikjian would later undertake further research on self-replicating lunar factories as a Phase I Study for the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts – NIAC. Managed by the Universities Space Research Association and funded by NASA, the institute was in operation from 1998 until 2007.
It was “formed for the explicit purpose of functioning as an independent source of revolutionary aeronautical and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions.”
This program was re-established only until 2011 under its current name NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts – NIAC.
Chirikjian’s research echoes a much earlier publication in the 1980s. This publication addresses the powerful implications of self-replicating systems and advances the concept that robust robotics are synonyms with revolutionary breakthroughs in space.
“The development of self-replicating systems in this context will be revolutionary, with impacts equal to or exceeding those engendered by other “revolutions” in human history. For the first time, mankind will be creating, not merely a useful paradigmatic tool (e.g., the scientific method, Copernican revolution), organizational tool (eg, centralized cultivation, agricultural revolution), or energy-harnessing tool (eg, steam power, industrial revolution), but rather a wholly new category of “tool” – a device able to use itself intelligently and with minimum human intervention. In many respects, with self-replicating systems, mankind is creating a technological partner rather than a mere technical implement.”
Key Takeaway: Our Future in Space Depends on Advances in Robotics
I acknowledge the ethical questions that intersect with the fields of robotics, machine intelligence, and autonomy. However, even if we harness advanced in-space propulsion technologies and industry-wide innovations that would allow mission crews to reach their destinations quicker, or enable them to remain longer in space, self-replicating robots might help us go beyond our limitations.
I am also aware that the boundaries between what humans do and what robots will shift and change. In a not-so-distant future, our understanding and rapport with autonomous robots will become even more interdependent.
I look forward to the autonomous robots that could service in-space modules or spacecraft without astronauts to advance interplanetary travel. I also look forward to increased human-robotic cooperation with humanoid robots, such as that seen with NASA’s Robonaut 2 (R2) and JAXA’s Kirobo. They might allow us to adjust better to the extended travel periods in space.
R2 at International Space Station. 2011.
Kirobo at International Space Station. 2013.
Human spaceflight and human-led space missions will continue to awe us. However, so will the successes and advances of our robotic partners.
If we want to progress steadily in the upcoming space revolution and the continued commercialization of the space economy, robotics must be front and center. Human-robotic cooperation will become both the pinnacle and testament of our progress for a sustainable multi-planetary presence.
The artwork featured at the top and throughout the article is a series titled Inside the ring of Phobos (2019) by Siarhei Piatrou, whose artistic name is Thu Berchs. Originally from Belarus, Thu is currently based in the U.K and will soon relocate to China. Space inspired Thu from an early age because his parents are trained astronomers, and he grew up reading their books.
A professional artist for eight years now, Thu points out:
“My whole life, I’ve been interested in space-related topics. Knowing that there are so many unknowns and realizing the scale of our planet compared to space, the similarities between structures of our planets, the inside our body, and the large cosmic structures are fascinating and very inspiring. There is so much to explore out there. That’s our future…”
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