It is, without a doubt, the most expensive air hockey table on Earth. Surrounded by three walls papered with pictures of the International Space Station’s interior, the perfectly polished, perfectly level granite slab at NASA’s Ames Research Center supports not a puck, but a robot riding on a cushion of CO2. Astrobee, it’s called, is a cubic bot outfitted with 12 thrusters spitting blasts of air. It glides cautiously across the granite, sounding not unlike a muted jet engine. It’s weirdly soothing.
This is a training exercise—the wallpaper is for Astrobee to get its bearings. Because soon the robot will break free of this replica of a microgravity space lab and head to the real ISS, where it will float around in 3-D space, assisting astronauts in a range of tasks. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, and a fascinating glimpse at NASA’s robotic future in space.
Astrobee is a semi-autonomous machine. Most of the time, and especially in the early days of its deployment (likely early next year), an operator will control the robot to make sure it’s getting along with the crew. But Astrobee can also putter about on its own, taking video of the astronauts—so, for instance, an expert on the ground might walk them through particular problems—and return autonomously to a dock to recharge.
To find its way around, the robot uses an array of sensors, from a camera that builds a 3-D map like Microsoft’s Kinect system, to a general purpose camera that keeps an eye out for landmarks. Astrobee can, say, spot a pole attached to the wall, grab it with a robotic arm, then idle its engines to save energy while it continues eyeballing the crew.
On top of working like an ultra-expensive baby monitor, Astrobee will function as a scientific workhorse for researchers. “They’ll be able to put new software on our system, basically reprogram how it works,” says Trey Smith, systems lead for Astrobee. “And they’ll also be able to plug in additional payloads to the system to try out new sensors or new arms or anything like that.”
All of this of course demands precise control, no easy task when you’re floating around willy-nilly. To that end, Astrobee uses blasts of air to steer itself. Bookending a central module are two propulsion modules, which draw in air with a propeller and blow it out any of 12 total nozzles. “Each nozzle is pointed in a fixed direction but it has two flappers inside that can open or close the air flow out of that nozzle,” says Smith. Activate the right nozzles and you can steer Astrobee in any direction.
Astrobee’s biggest sell, though, is its autonomy. That feature makes it a significant upgrade from NASA’s Spheres robots (deep breath: Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites), more-or-less cylindrical research tools that have been floating around the ISS for over a decade, giving researchers insights into satellite movement in microgravity. Astrobee is far more advanced and far more autonomous, meaning Astrobee is going places. Like, maybe one day outside the space station to inspect damage or perform routine maintenance. That all depends, though, on the fate of the ISS itself, which NASA is only funded to operate through 2024.
Regardless, you can expect more helpful robots like Astrobee as NASA tries to automate mundane or dangerous tasks to push human exploration to Mars and beyond. For the near future, though, Astrobee will be NASA’s eye way, way up in the sky.