This Robot is All Eyes to Inspect Satellites in Orbit

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A self-repairing robot on the space station just isn’t enough to satisfy NASA’s mad quest to bring the robot uprising that much closer to reality. It may be cute in a lopsided Wall-E sort of way, but one day it’ll break free to independently inspect satellites if we want it to or not.

VIPIR looks goofy now, but wait until it breaks free to service satellites without our permission. Three cameras from left-to-right are situational, borescope, and motorized optical zoom. Image credit: NASA/Jon Kraeuter


The Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) is the latest development in creating a fleet of robots to repair satellites in orbit. While NASA wants you to believe that it’ll be operated through ground-based humans, we both this is just one step closer to an utterly self-sufficient robotic army.


VIPIR’s borescope camera is just 1.2 mm in diameter, the smallest commercial camera NASA has contemplated using in space. Similar cameras are used for endoscopies on Earth. Image credit: NASA/Jon Kraeuter

VIPIR is equipped with a fixed situational camera, an articulating borescope, and a motorized zoom-lens camera. The situational camera is a fixed lens with a 6mm focal range to provide context when positioning the robot and deploying the borescope. The borescope can extend up to 86 centimeters (34 inches) and bend up to 90 degrees. The 8-24 mm zoom-lens is equipped with a pair of tiny, 1-centimeter (0.5-inch) diameter motors to control zoom and focus, and is able to resolve worksite details a tiny as 0.5 mm (0.02 inches), or thinner than a credit card.


Each camera has integrated lights to ensure its work-area is well-illuminated. The robot’s objective is to provide eyes for puny humans unable to brave the harsh space environment, checking on micrometeoroid strikes, investigating anomalies, and assisting with satellite repairs.


D’aww, it’s so cute, like the robotic dog K9 mixed with Johnny Five. Image credit: NASA/Jon Kraeuter

VIPIR underwent a successful demonstration test in May 2015 by partnering up with the International Space Station’s robotic handyman Dextre. Grasped by the more mobile robot, VIPIR eyeballed assorted satellite parts from different distances. Later, VIPIR was also assigned the task of poking its borescope camera in to a “decision box” inspection activity simulator.


Next up is the next phase of the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) where VIPIR and Dextre will once again form adorable-yet-sinister robotic partnership to serve as space-based gas station attendants. The robots will transfer xeon, a gas used by ion engines, as proof-of-concept that they can service and refuel satellites in space.

Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn


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