INDUSTRIAL TECHNOLOGY, ASTRONOMY
European research lends an … arm to NASA mission
International co-operation is critical to modern-day space exploration and missions, such as the International Space Station (ISS) and Cassini-Huygens. European contributions to the ISS back the worldwide effort by the USA, Russia, and others to build this colossal structure in space. Indeed, British design specialists have added their skills to the recently launched US Discovery Shuttle mission.
British designers played a key role in developing a revolutionary robotic arm to help NASA refine its safety in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, which led the US space agency to ground its space shuttles for more than two years.
|How the ISS will be put together, a design endorsed by ISS Agency Heads in 2004.|
The Discovery space mission launched last week will carry out vital safety tests using a 50-foot robotic arm, conceived with help from researchers at Sheffield Hallam University. The artificial joints of the robotic arm exactly replicate the workings of a human limb, lending valuable flexibility to the mission to carry out in-flight tests.
Professor Chris Rust and Dr Graham Whiteley, from Sheffield Hallam’s Art and Design Research Centre, spent three years developing a precision-engineered artificial arm – with joints that move just like real ones – to replicate free-flowing natural movement.
The pair started out designing and building prosthetic arms, but their success in creating true-to-life movement drew the attention of NASA, which was looking for robotic arms to support future space missions. Their early pioneering work helped develop the model arm that the seven-member Discovery crew will use in their extended mission.
Creative thinking in action
Despite its shaky start with the loss of protecting sheeting on take-off, Discovery will continue its mission, transporting essential parts and supplies to the ISS and carrying out vital safety tests in the hope of reducing the possibility of future accidents should the Shuttle programme continue.
The ISS draws upon the scientific and technological resources of 16 nations: 11 countries in the European Space Agency, the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia and Brazil. More than four times as large as the Russian Mir space station, the ISS will wear almost an acre of solar panels to provide electrical power to six state-of-the-art laboratories.
The station will be in a a low-Earth orbit of around 360km. This orbit allows the station to be reached by the launch vehicles of all the international partners delivering crews and supplies, and carrying out scientific missions and Earth observation.
On the Discovery mission, Chris Rust says their research is a very practical demonstration of how creative thinking and practice can make a difference in an area normally the preserve of scientists and engineers. “Our prototype arm stands as a demonstration test-rig for the joint designs for a robotic arm,” he explains.
The robotic arm prototype was adapted by NASA scientists, at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, using plastic muscles. They used the new models to conduct arm-wrestling contests between a human and three different versions of a robot arm. It may also be developed into a horse-like Lunar Rover with the ability to climb steep inclines like a horse or a monkey, making space exploration much easier.
Sheffield Hallam University, ESA, EU sources
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