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Robonaut 2 and X-37B…Future Asteroid Deflection Force?

02/13/2011

US Air Force image of the X-37 being prepared for launch.

Only the Pentagon (and perhaps Boeing with Lockheed Martin) really know for sure, but is the Air Force X-37B orbital test vehicle (OTV) capable of performing as part of a rapid response near-Earth asteroid defensive system?

And is Robonaut 2 (“R2″), a humanoid robot with dexterous manipulation capabilities, a likely partner in crafting an effective solution to potentially deadly rocky threats which may be detected, on short notice, speeding toward our planet?

Launched April 24, 2010, the OTV, a small unmanned version of the shuttle, stayed in orbit for 225 days and was rigorously tested. The second X37 B space plane, launched March 5, 2011, is now circling the globe for more assessment by the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and presumably NASA.

The craft’s capabilities remain shrouded in mystery. How far above the restricted orbits of traditional shuttle craft can this smaller, robotic version of a reusable craft travel? How maneuverable is it? These are unknowns to the public.

One thing we do know…the X37 system is designed to carry cargo the size of a small truck, and a humanoid robot can easily hitch a ride with a satellite, to places and dangers where we may not wish to send humans. It’s 29 foot long by 15 feet wide footprint is much smaller than the traditional shuttle, but the X37B may be capable of much more than it’s predecessors.

When precision counts in outer space, and the stakes are high, we may depend upon Robonaut 2. Photo courtesy NASA.

Riding into space with a satellite missioned to deter an asteroid, R2 can extend the fingers of man in remote sectors of our solar system. The capabilities of a robotic hand may prove the difference between success or failure.

We already know the mini-shuttle can stay in orbit for up to 240 days with cargo. The longest the aging space shuttle vehicles (which are racing toward the end of their career) can remain in orbit is a mere 17 days. R2, jointly developed by General Motors and NASA, is designed to stay in space permanently. Such a team can be ready…in space…to respond quickly. Launch delays would not be a concern.

The X-37 may or may not signify a “weaponization” of space, as some fear. But if such a vehicle is capable of short notice launch of systems designed to intercept and deflect or destroy fast moving incoming asteroids, that would be a welcome, and much needed capability scientists have been seeking for years. See previous posts: “A Priority for the New NASA Administrator” and “Jovian Warning II.”

One day, an orbitally pre-stationed X37 craft containing the equipment and robotics necessary to target a threatening asteroid may save our planet. It could serve as a flexible and deployable sentinel in space, with semi-human capabilities, ready to shorten the time between detection of a deadly asteroid path and Earth’s preplanned response.

We don’t have to wait long for such a capability. R2, safely delivered on the last flight of Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS), is a humanoid making science fiction come true. It is about to be unpacked for testing in earth orbit. Will Robinson would be jealous. This robot can say much more than “Danger!” For more on the capabilities of R2, see the official R2 website.

Robonaut 2, already aboard the final scheduled flight of Discovery, can be part of a rapid deployment force to deflect incoming asteroids. Image courtesy NASA.

Once fully tested and operational, R2 offers amazing opportunities.

Instead of sending humans to an asteroid to accomplish the delicate and precise mission to push the asteroid off course, R2 could stand in their place. (Sorry Bruce Willis). It could assist by mechanically delivering the dexterity and physiologic precision of a human hand in making the fine-tuned last minute adjustments we once only thought astronauts could perform during difficult technological pursuits deep in space.

Despite present day budget cuts and questions about the future role of NASA in space exploration, X37 and Robonaut 2 technology are proof positive that NASA, and the Air Force, are moving in creative, and much needed, paths to the future. Planetary defense should be part of their mission.


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