Sunday, May 2, 2004

NASA robot worker may rescue Hubble telescope

Universities submit ideas to replace human astronauts' repair work

The Associated Press

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Think Edward Scissorhands, but with bolt drivers and pliers for hands and a giraffelike neck topped with a pair of cameras resembling black cratered eyes.

Could this strange robot take the place of astronauts in fixing the Hubble Space Telescope? NASA is yearning to find out.

With astronauts banned from Hubble because of space shuttle safety concerns, the University of Maryland's Ranger robot could conceivably save the day by installing fresh batteries and other life-sustaining parts on the observatory.

Or if not Ranger, then Robonaut, NASA's very own humanoid robot, or the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre, a two-armed robot intended for the international space station, or any number of other robots under development that could blast off aboard an unmanned rocket in three or four years.

While astronomers may wince at the prospect of a machine working on their beloved Hubble, the robot crowd can barely hide its glee over NASA's search for a mechanical deliverer.

First stop: Hubble.

Next stop: the moon and Mars.

The technology is here and the time is now, says David Akin, director of the University of Maryland's space systems laboratory and leader of the team that created Ranger. He estimates the technology exists to do 90 percent to 95 percent of whatever NASA wants at Hubble or the space station - or on the moon, its new target destination.

Mars mission encouraging

NASA's associate administrator for space science, Ed Weiler, is becoming a believer that a robot could extend Hubble's life.

He's even considering making the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope modular so robots could replace parts; the telescope will be launched in 2011 to a point 1 million miles from Earth, well beyond human reach.

"I have new respect for robots, especially after the miracle of landing two robots on Mars and actually fixing one of them 100 million miles away," says Weiler.

NASA estimates Hubble will likely stop observing the cosmos by 2007 or 2008 unless someone or something gets there before the batteries die.

For Akin, more than Hubble is at stake. "I would like to think somebody at NASA realizes that to do humans on the moon and Mars, you're going to need robotics to set up lunar bases, to build transfer vehicles," he says.

Taken aback by the outcry over abandoning Hubble, NASA put out the call for robots in March, and 26 ideas were submitted.

NASA wants to settle on a course of action before fall.

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