Harvard's Handy Droids: The Key to Keeping Astronauts Safe on the Moon and Mars

Harvard’s Handy Droids: The Key to Keeping Astronauts Safe on the Moon and Mars

As NASA sets its sights on sending astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars, researchers are figuring out how to keep them alive in harsh extraterrestrial environments. A team at Harvard is developing versatile robots that can maintain and repair deep space habitats when things go wrong.

Picture a lunar outpost battered by meteorites, radiation bursts, or other hazards. These habitats need to handle issues autonomously when crews aren’t around. “One of our main goals is preparing for the unexpected,” says Justin Werfel, head of the Harvard project.

Rather than specialized industrial bots, the habitats need just a few multifunctional fixer-upper droids that can replace filters, make repairs, and handle various emergencies as needed. “It’s a major challenge designing robots that are essentially handymen in space,” Werfel explains.

To handle such a wide range of tasks, the researchers built a transformer-style gripper with reconfigurable fingers. “The gripper has different modes – one for securely grasping objects, another for in-hand object manipulation, and one for conforming around shapes and distributing contact pressure,” Werfel says.

This versatile, almost human-like dexterity allows the gripper to tackle everything from routine maintenance to meteorite patch-ups. The team is also developing better robotic arms, human-bot collaboration methods, and equipment designed for easier robotic handling.

The potential impacts extend beyond deep space, influencing fields like disaster response and industrial automation. “But right now, we’re focused on keeping astronauts alive and productive on places like the moon and Mars,” Werfel says.

After all, NASA’s extraterrestrial ambitions require habitats that can endure unpredictable environments. With a little help from handy droids that act as robotic custodians, outposts on other worlds may soon support thriving human communities.