Space 'spiders' could build solar satellites
* 17:56 14 December 2005
* NewScientist.com news service
* Kelly Young
A mission to determine whether spider-like robots could construct complex structures in space is set to launch in January 2006. The spider bots could build large structures by crawling over a "web" released from a larger spacecraft.
The engineers behind the project hope the robots will eventually be used to construct colossal solar panels for satellites that will transmit solar energy back to Earth. The satellites could reflect and concentrate the Sun's rays to a receiving station on Earth or perhaps beam energy down in the form of microwaves.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency will launch a satellite called Furoshiki on 18 January 2006, which will conduct three experiments to test the idea. The satellite will be deployed from a rocket on a sub-orbital trajectory. This means scientists will have only 10 minutes of microgravity in which to perform their tests before the craft starts its descent back to Earth and eventually burns up in the atmosphere.
The first experiment will see three small satellites detach from the mother ship and stretch out to form two corners of a triangular net with their mother craft forming the other. Onboard cameras will be used to verify that the net, which measures 40 metres on each side, remains as steady as possible and that the daughter satellites do not get tangled in the web.
Next, two smaller robots, called RobySpace Junior 1 and 2, will crawl out of the mother satellite and manoeuvre themselves along strands of the web. Such spider robots could one day be used to fit pieces of a large solar array or reflector on top of the netting.
The prototype robots, built by engineers at the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Vienna University of Technology, will test how well they can crawl along the net in the absence of gravity. Each robot has a set of wheels that can grip both sides of a netting line to prevent it from floating off into space.
"I hope that we can demonstrate for the first time that it is possible to move along a very thin, free-floating net in a controlled fashion," says Leopold Summerer from ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.
While the robots are being deployed, a ground station will command the mother and daughter satellites to synchronise their microwave antennae and beam a signal back to a receiving station on Earth.
The mission will last only a short period of time but will cost much less than an in-orbit experiment. "We wanted to try a satellite experiment which provides us with a very long experiment time," says Nobuyuki Kaya, an engineer at Kobe University, Japan, who is working on the satellite’s microwave experiment. "But we have no budget. We thought, well, this is just a first step."
A satellite capable of beaming one billion watts of solar-generated electricity back to Earth would probably need a solar panel with an area of one square kilometre. But spider robots could also be used to build massive communication antennas or a shield to protect satellites from orbiting space junk.
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