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Risks of space lead NASA to eye robots with right stuff

Hubble rescue, moon missions are considered

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Think Edward Scissorhands, but with bolt drivers and pliers for hands and a giraffelike neck topped with a pair of cameras resembling black cratered eyes instead of the handsome head of Johnny Depp.

Could this strange robot take the place of astronauts in fixing the Hubble Space Telescope? NASA is yearning to find out.

With astronauts banned from Hubble because of space shuttle safety concerns, the University of Maryland's Ranger robot could conceivably save the day by installing fresh batteries and other life-sustaining parts on the observatory.

Or if not Ranger, then Robonaut, NASA's very own humanoid robot, or the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre, a two-armed robot intended for the international space station, or any number of other robots under development that could blast off aboard an unmanned rocket in three or four years.

While astronomers and astronauts may wince and scoff at the prospect of a machine working on their beloved Hubble, the robot crowd can barely hide its glee over NASA's search for a mechanical deliverer.

The technology is here and the time is now, says David Akin, director of the University of Maryland's space systems laboratory and leader of the team that created Ranger. He estimates the technology exists to do 90 to 95 percent of whatever NASA wants at Hubble or the space station or on the moon, its new target destination.

"If NASA waits until robots become servants in your house, they're way far behind the power curve," Akin said. Both Hubble and the space station will be long gone, "and it's going to be 2050 and we're still going to be talking about how nice it would be to go back to the moon," he said.

NASA's associate administrator for space science, Ed Weiler, is becoming more and more a believer that a robot could extend Hubble's life. He's even considering making the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope modular so robots could replace parts; the telescope will be launched in 2011 to a point 1 million miles from Earth, well beyond human reach.

"I have new respect for robots, especially after the miracle of landing two robots on Mars and actually fixing one of them 100 million miles away," Weiler said. "So I've got to believe robots have a role, just as I believe humans have a role."

Akin prefers a pair-up, too. His research has found that together, a spacewalking astronaut and robot would be much more efficient than individually.

Ranger, in fact, was conceived as an astronaut's assistant, to serve as a third and fourth hand for Hubble spacewalkers and thereby reduce the time and risk for humans outside. But with astronauts out of the space telescope picture, Ranger ought to take a solo swing at it, Akin says.

NASA estimates that Hubble will probably stop observing the cosmos by 2007 or 2008 unless someone or something gets there before the batteries die.

For Akin, more than Hubble is at stake.

"I would like to think somebody at NASA realizes that to do humans on the moon and Mars, you're going to need robotics to set up lunar bases, to build transfer vehicles," he said. "To relieve the crew of having to do the grunt work of toting and carrying and so forth, you need dexterous robotics."

"Everybody's willing on kind of a high-level conceptual basis to say, 'Yeah, that's absolutely true.' "

But while NASA has commissioned all sorts of computer graphics showing astronauts and robots working together, Akin said, "they haven't been willing to put a penny into actually making it come true."

That may be about to change because of Columbia's demise and the countdown to Hubble's doom.

The Feb. 1, 2003, catastrophe is forcing NASA to find ways for shuttle astronauts to patch potential holes in their orbiting ships once flights resume next year. NASA's backup plan, failing successful repairs, is for a shuttle crew to seek refuge at the space station.

Astronauts at Hubble could not get to the station if something went wrong, and so NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe in January killed the last telescope-servicing mission on the shuttle books and decreed that the spaceships fly solely to the station.

Taken aback by the public outcry over abandoning Hubble, NASA put out the call for robots in March, and 26 ideas were submitted. The space agency also sought the advice of the National Academy of Sciences, at the urging of members of Congress.

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