You’ve seen the news. On Thursday, July 21, 2011, the Atlantis will land in Florida marking the end of NASA’s 30-year space shuttle program. But if you think it’s the end of America’s active involvement in the great “what’s out there,” you haven’t been reading beyond the headlines.
With STS-135, that is, the final flight of the Atlantis, the U.S. has completed construction of the International Space Station. The ISS is a cooperative effort by 15 countries to build a research facility in a micro-gravity environment 200 miles above the earth. And though the U.S. has grounded its human space flights for now, it expects to continue sending Americans to the station until at least 2020–they’ll just hitch a ride with Russian rockets rather than U.S. shuttles. But for the robots, it's business as usual.
That’s right. A lot of what goes on at the space station is done with robots. You can send an unmanned vehicle and one of the space station’s big robotic arms can catch and dock your craft. Smaller arms take on finer motor tasks, like trying to refuel satellites (even those never built for refeuling). So, while some space work still requires humans, most of the heavy lifting can be managed remotely.
Video Credit: NASAeClips
As you might guess, none of this is cheap. Not only that, some of it is quite dangerous. As Paul Hill, director of NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate, said in a recent interview, “there are billion dollar spacecraft and missions, and priceless people at stake.”
And that leads us to why you’re reading about a floating laboratory in a blog that’s supposed to be about design software. Within Paul Hill’s Directorate there is a group that focuses on planning and simulating those robot arm activities. The International Space Station Robotic Arm Planning Group has replicated the space station’s robotic arms virtually–that is, on their computers. The group tries out missions before people or payloads are ever at risk.
How do they model robotic arms and payloads in virtual space? I’m very proud to tell you they use PTC’s Creo’s direct modeling approach. The engineers at NASA typically import STEP files into Creo, simplify, and then exported the data as VRML files. John Rollfe, a robotics analyst, says it was very important to NASA engineers to “maintain a high degree of dimensional accuracy in our models due to their use in procedure development and clearance monitoring–a necessity when doing operations such as capturing … and docking to the ISS.”
Video Credit: nasagogblog
Read more about how Creo helps NASA maintain “situational awareness” on its international space station missions in this recent Application Brief from NASA’s publishing arm, NASA Tech Briefs.
As for the space shuttle, we’ll be watching and wishing NASA and crew a safe final landing Thursday as we all bid Atlantis hail and farewell!
Atlantis crew, image by NASA