Since the infamous space race of the 1960s, space agencies across the globe have been building, testing and launching various robots, each designed to teach us more about our atmosphere, Moon, the solar system and beyond.
From the USSR’s first lunar rover of the 1970s to the upcoming launch of the Mars 2020 mission, these robots carry out tasks too dangerous or mundane for humans and visit the most remote, extreme terrains of far gone planets.
To celebrate all that we’ve learnt, and what we’re still yet to discover, we’ve rounded up a list of the best space robots.
A year after NASA’s Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the Moon, the USSR sent up the first successful robotic lunar rover – Lunokhod 1. From November 1970 until the summer of the following year, Lunokhod 1 travelled more than 10km across the lunar surface, operated remotely from the Soviet Union. To put this achievement into perspective, NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity has only travelled 12km in six years. Lunokhod 1 ran on solar power during the day and a polonium thermal heater at night to survive the -150°C temperatures. It sent back data about the lunar soil and some of the first close-up views of the Moon’s craters.
Apollo 15 Moon Buggy
NASA’s first lunar rover, or moon buggy, didn’t land until Lunokhod 1 had finished its transmissions, in July 1971. Launched as part of the manned Apollo 15 mission, the Apollo 15 moon buggy became the first vehicle to be driven on the Moon. The beauty of the drivable rover was that it could help astronauts explore beyond their landing site, meaning they could gather much more exotic samples. And, during the mission, this particular LRV drove a total of 27km – or three hours and two minutes. Technologically, it formed the basis of every rover that has been built and launched since. In this picture, taken by Commander Dave Scott, Module Pilot Jim Irwin is pictured with the rover with Mount Hadley in the background.
In another first, Sojourner was the original robotic rover to land on Mars. Named after Sojourner Truth, the African-American activist, the rover explored an area of the Red Planet around its landing site called Ares Vallis. This area was flat, making it safe for the rover to land, and was thought to have been the site of an ancient flood. From its landing on 4 July 1997 until its final transmission on two months later, Sojourner sent back 550 images of Mars as well as revealing fascinating insights about the type of soil, winds and weather.
A staggering 15 years after its mission had been expected to end, the Mars Opportunity Rover made its final transmission to NASA HQ on 10 June 2018. Opportunity landed in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars in January, 2004, 20 days after its sibling Spirit rover landed in Gusev Crater on the other side of the planet. Spirit logged almost 8 km before its mission ended in May 2011, while Opportunity racked up a record-breaking 45km. During its travels, it collected more than 217,000 images. This selfie of Opportunity was taken while it was travelling through "Perseverance Valley" on the slopes of Endeavour Crater using the rover's Microscopic Imager on its 5000th Martian Day.
Probably the most famous of the Mars rovers, and one that is still on active duty, is Curiosity. This selfie, pictured, shows the car-sized rover on Vera Rubin Ridge in the Gale crater on Mars. Curiosity landed on Mars on 6 August, 2012 and was initially commissioned for two years. Just six months after landing, NASA extended this mission “indefinitely”. It was built to assess Mars’ "habitability” and it carries the largest, most advanced suite of scientific instruments ever sent to the martian surface. These instruments can take rock samples, analyse their formation and structure and send the data back to Earth.
A little closer to home is Dextre – a two-armed “telemanipulator” space robot built by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to help out on the International Space Station (ISS). It completed its first scheduled task in February 2011 and has been assisting the onboard astronauts with the maintenance of the station. In particular, Dextre tackles the tough, routine jobs that need to be done both inside and outside the station and is pictured here on the outside of the ISS replacing one of the exterior cameras. It is controlled from Earth by the CSA, which frees the astronauts onboard to spend more time on science experiments. Each of its arms has seven joints that can move up and down, side to side, and can rotate. Each hand then contains a wrench, camera and lights and a connector to provide power, data and video connection.
Elsewhere on the ISS, the Robonaut project has been conducting research into robotics technology by sending a humanoid to “live” alongside the Station’s current crew. NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, who was commander during Expedition 30, is pictured with Robonaut 2 in the Destiny Laboratory of the ISS. Robonauts are are dexterous humanoid robots built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The original model was recently upgraded with two “legs”, more capable processors and sensors and the so-called Robonaut 2 has been tasked with working through the checkout exercises needed to keep the ISS in orbit. These tasks include those that are simple, repetitive or dangerous.
Alongside maintaining and operating its current fleet of space robots, NASA and other space agencies are also working on their next-generation of machines set for missions in the near future.
Athlete, pictured here, has been built and is being tested by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Its name stands for All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer and it’s a robotic vehicle capable of rolling over and walking through the kinds of terrains seen on the Moon, Mars and beyond. It is designed to help robotic and manned missions, transport and deposit payloads. This first version can dock with refuelling stations, for example, and future versions will be able to connect to even more spacecraft as well as move 100 times faster than the Mars Exploration Rovers and travel over almost any terrain, including vertical rock faces.
Mars 2020 rover
All of the Mars rovers that have come before have been building up to the next major Mars mission, set to take place in 2020. Expected to launch next July, and land in February 2021, the Mars 2020 rover’s mission is set to last at least one Mars year (687 Earth days). It looks similar to Curiosity yet comes with a more capable wheel design as well as a drill that will be used for coring samples from Martian rocks and soil. This is the first time a Mars rover has contained such a drill and this will help NASA scientists greater understand Mars’ terrain, topography and history.