This Space-Walking Handyman Robot Can Repair Anything - Including Itself

Among the many challenges facing modern astronauts is the question of maintenance and repair. When equipment situated on the hull of a spaceship or space station stops working, how is one to repair it? Until recently, the answer was simple - if a little unpleasant - someone needs to go outside on a spacewalk, where they'll manipulate an array of tools with a level of dexterity their suits were never designed for. Sounds kinda unpleasant, doesn't it? 

Thanks to a new handyman robot that goes by the name of Dextre, such spacewalks might soon be a thing of the past. This week, the Canadian machine set out on its very first mission - to repair the International Space Station's Canadarm 2. The job involves replacing cameras mounted on the Canadarm 2 and its mobile base - something which was once left to astronauts. 

Not only that, it's actually capable of self-repair; a first in the world of robotics. 

"We've had to change cameras before," explained Canadian Space Agency mission control supervisor Matthieu Caron, "but we had to do it during spacewalks." 

Although Dextre has been present on the space station since 2008 for minor repair jobs, this marks the first time the Canadarm 2's been fixed robotically. Already Dextre has proven itself far better suited to it than human hands. The robot - controlled from the Canadian Space Agency's headquarters in Longueuil, Quebec and NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston - can wield a wide array of different tools in its multi-jointed arms, and can move with a dexterity which is quite frankly impossible for a human being to achieve in a space-walk. The only involvement the astronauts had in the mission was that they pushed a new camera into the airlock so Dextre could install it.

This is good news for the astronauts, according to Caron, whosays that the logistics of a spacewalk prepare are frankly nightmarish compared to those involved in using a robot. 

"Spacewalks are very complex and use a lot of space station resources," he explained. "They can monopolize astronauts not only for the duration of the spacewalk, but in the weeks leading up to it for all their preparation. This ultimately eats into valuable time that the astronauts could otherwise spend running experiments."

Even better, he added, robots never need to rest or return to the inside of the station, meaning the operation can be stopped (and resumed) at any time.   

Caron's quick to caution that Dextre - while promising - doesn't signify the end of spacewalks for good. At least...not yet. There are still certain tasks the robot's incapable of carrying out, owing to the fact that it can only handle tools and hardware which are 'robotically compatible;' coverings such as thermal blankets present it with considerable difficulty. 

Still, the team is working hard to overcome those limitations, testing it with such tasks as refueling satellites. 

Dextre's current job - which is scheduled to be completed this Thursday - involves two of the Canadarm 2's eleven cameras. One of these was completely broken, and not transmitting video at all, while the other was described by ISS staff as looking "a little hazy."  Dextre is scheduled to complete its mission this Thursday. After that, it's scheduled to replace a circuit breaker in June, and to repair equipment involved in spacewalks later in the Summer.

"The next year is going to be very busy from a Canadian robotics perspective," said Caron.