Astrobee is a robot that will soon be flying around the International Space Station (ISS) alongside the astronauts. This compact, 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot cube is designed to: help scientists and engineers develop and test technologies for use in zero-gravity; help the astronauts do their routine chores; and give flight controllers in Houston additional eyes and ears on spacecraft.
Astrobee builds on the success of SPHERES, NASA’s first generation free-flyer now aboard the ISS, but can take on research, housekeeping, and monitoring duties without astronaut supervision—Astrobee can operate either in fully automated mode or under remote control from Houston, without wasting valuable astronaut time. That allows it to run more often and provide more time for testing new technologies in “zero gee”.
For scientists developing advanced technologies, operating Astrobee on the ISS without astronaut supervision means opening up opportunities to experiment and test capabilities at lower risk levels. Magnetic propulsion, for example, is a promising technology for controlling swarms of satellites flying together in perfect formation. It could enable a group of satellites to form a giant space telescope that could even look for signs of life in the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. Instead of waiting years to launch an expensive swarm of satellites, it's faster and easier for scientists to add magnetic propulsion modules to the Astrobee robots and test in the station’s zero gee environment, where they are free to experiment with different control approaches, with no risk of losing the mission in space.
For the astronauts, Astrobee is an important step in freeing up their research time by leaving the free-flyer to perform mundane chores. For example, with tens of thousands of tools and parts to keep track of, Astrobee can cruise the ISS to continually verify the location of items with its RFID scanner, instead of requiring astronauts to spend their time doing this by hand. Astrobee can also monitor environmental conditions such as air quality or sound levels, which can get very loud on the ISS, again freeing up the astronauts’ time while keeping them healthy.
For the flight controllers, Astrobee gives them the ability to fly around the station without ever leaving Houston. They can see and hear the station activities through the free-flyers’ microphone and cameras, monitor and conduct experiments, or oversee routine chores by remote control, almost like being there.
Astrobee is currently under development and planned to be ready for launch in 2017.