NASA Celebrates 3 Years Of Astrobee Robotic Free-Flyers Buzzing On The Space Station

Animation of Astrobees on the space station. Credit: NASA

Three years ago, a pair of robots were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) to help pave the way for the future of robotics and autonomous systems in space. Those pioneers were Honey and Bumble, who were soon joined by a third companion called Queen, and together they make up the free-flight robotic system Strobee. Robots like Astrobees are essential components of[{” attribute=””>NASA’s Artemis mission to deliver humans back to the Moon, before traveling to " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">Mars and beyond.

“There’s a reason so many science fiction stories have a beloved robot alongside the human heroes – we know we can’t explore space alone,” said Jose Benavides, the Astrobee Facilities Project Manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “We’re showing that humans and robotic systems can collaborate and support powerful science and engineering beyond Earth.”

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough Poses With Astrobees

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough poses aboard the International Space Station with all three Astrobee robotic free-flyers. Credit: NASA/Shane Kimbrough

Since launch, the Astrobee program – run out of NASA Ames – has operated over 750 hours on the space station, completing over 100 activities, from tech demonstrations to assisting in experiments. The robots have proven capable of feats previously in the realm of science fiction, such as detecting an anomaly during a simulation on station (see video below) and connecting autonomously with station subsystems. Honey, Bumble, and Queen have been busy bees, and they show no signs of slowing down.

NASA’s Integrated Autonomous and Adaptive Surveillance System, or ISAAC, is advancing a new technology that allows robots to take care of spacecraft. Researchers recently demonstrated the technology aboard the International Space Station using Astrobee, NASA’s free-flying robotic assistants. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center

Three years of evolving astrobees

Astrobees are next-generation technology, based on three orb-shaped robots from the SPHERES project (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite). Astrobees evolved from this initial concept as researchers developed new tools and capabilities.

Video from April 1, 2018, explaining how the Astrobee project is developing a set of three free-flying robots that will operate inside the International Space Station (ISS) alongside astronauts. Credit: NASA

They fly in microgravity using electric fans, they “see” using cameras and sensors, and they have arms to hold objects or hold steady for tasks requiring stability. The researchers also tested adhesive technology, inspired by gecko feet, to allow the Astrobees to cling to a variety of surfaces without applying force to adhere and then detach on demand. Astrobee teams envision a robotic system that is smart and versatile enough to handle simpler maintenance and monitoring tasks to leave astronauts free to tackle more complex tasks.

Video from 2019, before the launch of the Astrobees to the ISS. Astrobee is a free-flying robot system for the International Space Station. Designed and built at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, the system will be used to help scientists and engineers develop and test technologies for use in zero gravity. These robots are designed to assist astronauts in Earth orbit and support sustained human exploration to the Moon, Mars or other deep space destinations. Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center

But the Astrobee platform is not just for astronauts. As part of the annual Kibo robot programming challenge, held alongside the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and now in its third year, students around the world can write code for the Astrobees. Winning teams can see their programs run on the robots in space. Inspiring the next generation of programmers and engineers is vital as NASA prepares for a future where robotics will play a central role in humanity’s exploration beyond our planet.

Location and mobility of Astrobee's free flyers

NASA Astronaut and Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy poses with two Astrobee robotic assistants during visual and navigational tests inside the JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Kibo laboratory module. Credit: Chris Cassidy/NASA

Robotic autonomy for Artemis and beyond

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur observes honey from the robot Astrobee

NASA astronaut and Expedition 65 flight engineer Megan McArthur observes the robot Astrobee Honey during an experiment testing its ability to “listen” to station components to help detect anomalies in the systems of spacecraft that may require maintenance. Credit: NASA

Unlike the space station, future deep space outposts may not be equipped year-round and will need autonomous systems to remain operational. This includes Gateway, which will orbit the Moon and serve as a launch point for missions to Mars.

The ISAAC (Integrated System for Autonomous and Adaptive Caretaking) project aims to test how robotic systems can perform tasks such as repairs, maintenance and even experiments independently.

By giving Honey and Bumble challenges to solve on their own — like removing a “sock” blocking an air vent — ISAAC develops the abilities needed for robots to take care of spacecraft when astronauts aren’t on board. But a major part of operating autonomously in a complex environment is having a detailed map and knowing where you are.

ISAAC’s two most recent demonstrations used Astrobees to create 3D maps of the interior of the space station. Bumble flew out of its home pod and mapped out a new environment on its own. The ability to explore and map independently is essential for the future of autonomous robotics.

“Three years ago, we wanted to test how robotics could support human space exploration, not just for this decade, but for the next few decades,” said Maria Bualat, ISAAC deputy project manager at Ames. “We’re starting to see what that will look like.”

Astrobee and ISAAC were funded by NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, part of the Space Technology Missions Directorate.

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