Two of NASA’s ISS space robots worked independently of each other, but at the same time.
Why it matters
This is the first time more than one of these space bots operated simultaneously and without much external support.
Not every worker aboard the International Space Station is a human. Nor a matter of fact, not every worker is an organic life-form. Hundreds of miles above Earth, floating right next to trained astronauts in this space-borne laboratory, you’ll find.
They’re NASA’s flying robot helpers known as the Astrobees.
First launched to space in 2018, each cube-shaped, 12.5-inch-wide member of the trio is responsible for assisting ISS dwellers with important — yet often tedious — tasks like taking inventory, documenting experiments with built-in cameras or transporting cargo throughout the station. Honey and Bumble went up first, and were soon followed by Queen.
“In addition to making spaceflight safer and more cost effective, robotic assistants like the Astrobees could manage routine chores to free up humans for more complex work,” NASA said. One day, these space bots might even blast off with astronauts on future missions to the moon, aka NASA’s Artemis endeavour, Mars and, potentially, deep space.
They’ve now reached a milestone in their journey. NASA said last week that two Astrobees — Queen and Bumble — successfully operated independently, side by side with their mortal associates. “In past experiments,” NASA said, “the robots have operated one at a time or have needed more hands-on support from their human colleagues.”
Below, you can see footage of the duo toiling away alongside astronauts Raja Chari and Matthias Maurer.
In the foreground, the mint green Queen is capturing its first 360-degree panoramic image of the ISS’ interior, according to NASA. Farther away, you can see a baby blue Bumble testing its navigation ability in what’s known as the Harmony module — an onboard utility hub — and gathering new station mapping data. Pastel yellow Honey must have had duties elsewhere.
Both of these experiments, for the agency, are part of the Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking Project, the organization that oversees the Astrobee system. ISAAC researchers are also in charge of these robot helpers’ docking stations, where they return to rest, relax and literally recharge when low on battery.
But beyond teaching the Astrobees standard spacecraft monitoring and maintenance capabilities, the ISAAC team is trying to make these robots as autonomous as possible, although notably, the Astrobees can be manually remote-controlled when necessary. That’s because, down the line, spacecraft like the lunar Gateway space station “won’t be crewed year-round, and will need smart, self-run robots to keep an eye on things while humans are away,” NASA said.
These droids aren’t the first synthetic laborers to grace Earth’s orbit. Their legacy rests on that of NASA’s Spheres robots, which have lived alongside scientists in space for over a decade now. Although Spheres are quite similar to the Astrobees in purpose, they’re built with older technology and, as their name suggests, are kind of round. Eventually, the Astrobees are meant to take over for Spheres, giving their predecessors a well-earned retirement.
As of April, the agency reported the Astrobees have operated for over 750 hours on the ISS, completed over 100 activities and proven capable of feats “previously in the realm of science fiction” like successfully reporting and investigating simulated anomalies aboard the station — all on their own.
Last year, for instance, astronauts tinkered with the station’s life support systems to make them detect a (false) super high concentration of carbon dioxide. Bumble quickly noticed, navigated the ISS to figure out what was wrong, indeed found the issue (a fake “sock” blocking a vent) and called for help.
It’s almost like Honey, Bumble and Queen are slowly paving the way for humanity’s own TARS, CASE and KIPP.