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     Volume 2 Issue 124 | June 21 , 2009|


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Science Feature

Robots critical to Endeavour's mission on space station

THE crew of the space shuttle Endeavour is getting ready to launch into what NASA is calling its most technical mission yet - one that will call on the power of three separate robots.

Endeavour is carrying aloft a seven-person crew on a 16-day mission to expand the Japanese laboratory housed on the International Space Station.

The highly complex mission will include five spacewalks, the use of three robotic arms, two working together and one that will actually "walk" across the outside of the space station.

Holly Ridings, lead space station flight director for the Endeavour mission, said it is one of the most technical undertaken by NASA. The mission goals couldn't be reached, she added, without the use of NASA robotics technology.

"The length of the mission, the five spacewalks, the robotics used almost every single day and 13 crew members makes it a big puzzle and all those pieces need to fit together correctly to get everything done," said Ridings, adding that NASA space missions will become increasingly dependent on robots.

"We have learned a lot about robotics and about working together with robot," she said. "Our spacewalkers are involved in activities while the robotic arms are looking at them and giving us camera views. The choreography of the different robotic arms is really complicated, and we've learned a lot about it and we do it well. Robotics is really one of the things that NASA has a lot of experience in and it's allowing us to do some wonderful things on the space station."

Ridings explained that as the astronauts begin their work outside the space station, a robotic arm will lift a 4-ton piece of the Japanese complex out of the shuttle's payload bay. This piece, which has been dubbed a "front porch", will be permanently attached to the outside of the Japanese module. It is designed to hold its own payloads, as well as host experiments that need to be conducted in outer space.

Ridings explained that either end of the big arm can be used as the base, just as either end can be used as a gripping hand. Once the arm hands off the porch, it's gripper end will swing over and attach to the space station and the end that was originally attached to the station will let go and free itself to be the gripping hand.

Ridings said the robotic arm has several redundancies built into its software so five to seven things would have to go wrong for the arm to lose its grip on the space station and float away into space.

The robotic arms are slated to conduct seven similar hand-offs between the two arms during the mission.

Meanwhile, there is a third robotic arm attached to the Japanese module that will be used for the first time next week. This the arm, installed at the station in June, 2008, will pick up and move payloads to the porch. "It'll be the first time we've used that robotic arm with a heavy payload on the end of it," said Ridings, who will be working in Mission Control while Endeavour is aloft. "We've had practice runs with it but this is the first time we've grabbed something and moved it around.”

Source: Computerworld

Quiz Answer: Former American Statesman

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