For a decade or more, NASA has been conducting a program designed to facilitate future space exploration by employment of telerobotic systems. A major advancement is development of a new vehicle - known as Ranger - designed as a low cost means of moving telerobotics experiments beyond the laboratory to actual space flight experience.
Shown at right, Ranger is a dual arm, free flying telerobotics experiment for on-orbit validation of many of the technologies developed in the NASA program. The Ranger Telerobotic Flight Experiment is coordinated by the University of Maryland Space Systems Laboratory, in cooperation with Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lewis Research Center and the Michigan Space Automation and Robotics Center. Ranger will carry experiments from every NASA center involved in the Telerobotics Research Program, plus experiments from industry and other universities.
Two Ranger vehicles are being built. The first, designed to operate under water, will undergo extensive testing at the Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility on the University of Maryland campus to get basic data on its operation and capabilities. The second, as nearly identical to the first as possible, is a flight vehicle, scheduled for launch in late 1996.
The project will correlate neutral buoyancy robotic simulation by nearly identical underwater and flight units performing identical tasks in both environments; that will increase understanding of the capabilities and limitations of existing techniques for simulating the space environment on Earth.
On orbit, Ranger will demonstrate a variety of space operations tasks, from the relatively simple installation of Orbital Replacement Unit modules to complex satellite servicing/refueling tasks that have thus far only been performed by astronauts in extravehicular gear. Utilizing telepresence ground-based control, coordinated manipulation operations, automated rendezvous and docking technology and a hybrid propulsion system, Ranger will conduct simulated satellite servicing exercises to characterize the operational capabilities of free flying robotic systems.
Ranger represents the first of a new class of low-cost expendable robots designed for research and servicing in areas beyond the reach of the Space Shuttle. The Ranger vehicles will incorporate design considerations for advancing technical education in the U.S. by encouraging direct student involvement in space research.