Robotic Space Spiders To Crawl Sub-Orbital Web

Space 'spiders', small robots able to crawl along mesh webbing, will be tested during a joint mission with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency and the Vienna University of Technology. The Furoshiki satellite is scheduled to launch on January 18, 2006. To save on mission costs, the rocket carrying the satellite will have a sub-orbital trajectory; only about ten minutes of microgravity will be available before the satellite begins its descent.


(RobySpace Junior Robot)

The first part of the mission involves the deployment of three small satellites, which will stretch out a triangular net with a side length of about twenty meters. The mother ship is positioned at the center of the net; onboard cameras will confirm that the web remains steady and untangled. Each daughter satellite will know the locations of the others by exchanging radio signals. Using this information, they will line themselves up with tiny jets.

Next, two small spider bots, RobySpace Junior 1 and 2, will climb out of the mother satellite and crawl along the net towards the daughter satellites. The robots are able to cling to both sides of the mesh net to keep from floating off into space. Microgravity tests aboard planes have verified that the technique works. The prototype space spiders were built by ESA and Vienna University of Technology engineers.


(RobySpace Robot Test)

A variety of uses for space spiders have been imagined by engineers:

  • Vast solar panels could be built to beam solar energy back to Earth (one square kilometer of panel could generate a billion watts of electricity).
  • Large communications satellites and other structures could be built by ground control on an initial lattice structure.
  • Space spiders could build shields to protect existing satellites from orbiting space junk.
Science fiction writers imagined space spiders and their uses a quarter-century ago. In 1978, Arthur C. Clarke wrote about a spider used to test the cables of a space elevator in The Fountains of Paradise. Spinnerettes were used to handle and dispense continuous pseudo one-dimensional diamond crystal in building the cables.

Author Charles Sheffield also wrote about a machine he called a Spider in his 1979 novel The Web Between the Worlds; these devices were able to extrude cable in a manner similar to the way real spiders spin their webs.

Read more about spider robots and their space web mission at the ESA site (here and here); the Institute for Handling Devices and Robotics has more materials on the robots. Thanks to Fred at The Eternal Golden Braid for the tip and author references.

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