You Know What this Space Station Needs? Bees!


The International Space Station (ISS) will soon be home to a swarm of robotic bees, designed to assist space travelers with routine tasks around the orbiting outpost. Like their namesakes, these bees will be busy, recording experiments as they are performed by residents of the space station, gathering supplies, and keeping track of inventory. Between tasks, the Astrobees will return to their docking stations in the Kibo module of the space station, where they will recharge their batteries.

Two of the Astrobees arrived at the ISS on April 19, as their spacecraft docked with the orbiting space station. The trio of robotic bees destined for life aboard the ISS even have their own names — Honey, Queen, and Bumble. Honey and Queen are now aboard the ISS, soon to be joined by Bumble. Six weeks after their arrival, researchers will begin testing them in space. Each of the cubed-shaped Astrobees measures 30 centimeters (one foot) along each side, and can operate autonomously, or by remote control from the ground.

Astrobees floating in mid-air
A trio of Astrobees will assist space travelers as they float around the space station. Image credit: NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“Just as bees contribute to Earth’s ecosystem in numerous ways, Astrobee will contribute to the development of new capabilities for future exploration missions. Astrobee will be used to test how robots can assist crew and perform caretaking duties for human spacecraft. This will increase astronaut productivity and even help maintain spacecraft when astronauts are not present near the Moon, Mars or other deep-space outposts.” NASA describes in an article outlining the technology.

Flight of the Bumblebee

The Astrobees arrived at the ISS aboard the S.S. Roger Chaffee, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, launched on a Cygnus Antares rocket April 17. Liftoff took place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The Astrobees arrived along with 3,450 kilograms (7,600 pounds) of cargo, docking to the Unity Module of the ISS, as the space station flew 410 kilometers (255 miles) over the Indian Ocean.

An Astrobee, seen from four different angles. Image credit: NASA

This is the 11th time a spacecraft designed by Northrup Grumman has successfully docked with the ISS. The spacecraft which delivered the Astrobees was named in honor of Roger Chaffee, who perished in 1967 during the Apollo One fire, along with his crewmates, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White.

“As we deliver critical supplies and cargo to the astronauts aboard the space station, we are inspired by Lt. Commander Chaffee’s courage and commitment to the human exploration of space. The Cygnus spacecraft represents his planned journey to space in memory of those who took great risks to advance our nation’s space program,” said Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of space systems at Northrop Grumman.

Cygnus spacecraft docking with the ISS
A Cygnus spacecraft docks with the ISS as it orbits above the Earth. Image credit: NASA TV

Shouldn’t Insects Have Eight Arms?

Each Astrobee is equipped with three payload bays, allowing people aboard the ISS to add new hardware modules. Software updates can easily be added as the Astrobees sit in their recharging docks. These capabilities will provide the robotic space-faring bees with the ability to carry out a wide range of tasks, including those not currently envisioned for the mechanical insects.

Inventory will be gathered through the use of robotic arms (one per bee), allowing the Astrobees to fetch items for researchers aboard the space station. Powered by electric fans, and guided by six cameras, the Astrobees have the ability to fly around the station, carrying out their tasks. The fans create a distinct hum, not unlike that of a buzzing bee here on Earth.

According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. It’s wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.
– Bee Movie, 2007

“Astrobee will prove out robotic capabilities that will enable and enhance human exploration. Performing such experiments in zero gravity will ultimately help develop new hardware and software for future space missions,” said Maria Bualat, Astrobee project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The Hive Mind

Hitching a ride with the bees were an experiment to test gels in microgravity, updated equipment to conduct medical testing, and biological research materials. Space travelers also received equipment to test the immune system of rodents in space.

Mice in space run around the walls of their cage in microgravity.
Playful as always, mice aboard the ISS invented a new game, racing around the walls of their cage. Original video by NASA, .gif created by The Cosmic Companion.

The Cygnus spacecraft will remain docked to the ISS until July 23, before heading off to deploy two small Cubesats for private corporations. That mission will end with a controlled re-entry, burning up over the Pacific Ocean.

There is no word as to what will happen if one of the Astrobees decides it wants a different job, but Jerry Seinfeld will likely make a movie about it.


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