Ever since Sputnik 1 was launched into space in 1957, robots have played a part in missions conducted by astronauts in space. Initially, robots conducted tests and gathered data in space. The first man-made object in space provided data about the atmosphere’s density and tested optical and radio methods of orbital tracking.
Robots later had other purposes, including the repair and replacement of parts of satellites in outer space. Robots helped with the replacement of the external shield of the first space station, Skylab, in 1973. This marked the beginning of the use of robots in fixing things while in outer space.
While robots are currently at the forefront of space exploration, initially the focus was initially on sending humans to space. This highlight of these missions was the landing of the lunar module of Apollo 11 made Neil Armstrong the first human to step on the moon in 1969. The success of the Apollo 11 mission resulted in a wave of moon missions. While some succeeded, many others failed.
These missions collected samples from the moon that were later sent back to Earth. The Luna 16 of the USSR was the first robotic mission to send lunar samples back to Earth.
After the first scientist reached the moon in 1972 on Apollo 17, the exploration of Earth’s lone satellite was left mainly to robots. Humans were limited to orbital missions after the first American space station went into orbit in 1973.
Russia followed over a decade later when it put the Mir space station into orbit in 1986. Today, the International Space Station (ISS) hosts astronauts from different countries who conduct experiments while in orbit.
Robots in Space Exploration
Even as astronauts conduct experiments in orbit on the ISS, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been sending space probes since 1977. These robotic probes collect information and send it back to Earth.
Earlier probes merely flew by the planets in the solar system. They contained equipment and sensors that gather information within their immediate vicinity. These sensors and equipment included dust detectors, plasma instruments, particle detectors, and magnetometers.
When NASA started sending missions to Mars, they included other equipment that allowed them to explore the planet. These rovers may also have pneumatic air actuators to allow them to collect and crush rock samples for analysis. They also had test chambers to analyze the chemical composition of the samples they collected.
Reasons for Using Robots in Space Exploration
Space exploration is now in the realm of robots as humans are now limited to conducting experiments on the ISS. Some people are questioning the move to leave humans out of space exploration for the moment. But there are several reasons why the space sector uses robots rather than humans.
Sending robots into space is safer since robots can withstand the rigors of space. People will not become emotional when we lose a robot in space. In comparison, emotions will be high if someone dies while on a mission in space. For instance, the current explorations on Mars may not be possible if robots were not used. Preparations for the mission were faster, and scientists can still control the robots as they explore the Red Planet.
Another reason why scientists use robots for space exploration is the cost. It is cheaper to send robots to space. A single space shuttle mission costs around $450 million. On the other hand, the Mars Pathfinder program cost only $265 million. Even if the space shuttle has a huge payload of equipment on its cargo bay, the treasure trove of information from the Mars mission was incomparable.
Additionally, robots do not eat, drink or sleep. They can also perform tasks that humans cannot perform, such as withstanding harsh conditions or high radiation levels. Robots can also survive the trip through space, and they do not need to return to Earth. After they send the data they collect, the scientists can leave the robots in space after the end of the mission.
The Future of Space Exploration
Even as sending robots to explore space has become the norm these days, some experts say humans should also join their robotic counterparts in the future. Experts say the low cost of sending robots into space also means they are less capable than humans.
For instance, the Luna missions of the USSR may have returned moon soil samples using robots at a low cost. But the quality of the samples was not comparable to the samples collected by the astronauts of the Apollo missions. This highlights the relevance of sending humans to explore space in the future.
Sending robots into space may have its advantages, but sending humans is still necessary to ensure the quality of space exploration work.