Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Denver news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Des Moines news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Minneapolis-St. Paul news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tampa Bay news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Charlotte news in your inbox

Catch up on the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam on a spacewalk in 2006. Photo: NASA

For decades, space agencies have relied on astronauts to take precarious and time-consuming spacewalks, but today, space station operators are increasingly turning to robots to perform tasks in orbit.

Why it matters: Using robots instead of astronauts for routine spacewalks would make spaceflight safer and more efficient, experts say, freeing up humans to only take walks in space during an emergency or for delicate experiments in microgravity.

Driving the news: Astronauts on the International Space Station are in the midst of a marathon 10 spacewalks focusing on station upkeep and repairs to a science instrument.

  • Ground controllers were able to use robotics to help set up some activities ahead of the spacewalks, making them easier for astronauts to perform.
  • But even with that robotic help, these spacewalks have taken dozens of hours of planning and training and represent one of the most dangerous activities astronauts can perform in space.

Details: The Dextre robotic tool — which comes equipped with 2 arms and 4 tool holders — on the outside of the ISS was used to loosen bolts before astronauts stepped out on their first walk in the series this month.

  • In the future, robotic tools could also take the place of astronauts in constructing stations while in orbit and inspecting components of those stations once built, aerospace engineer Ella Atkins of the University of Michigan and IEEE told Axios via email.
  • Humanoid robots in the vein of NASA's Robonaut might be able to take even more of that responsibility off of the shoulders of astronauts.

What's next: NASA's small Gateway station around the Moon will be designed to minimize the number of spacewalks needed at any given time, making use of advances in robotics.

  • And the Gateway will not be crewed year-round, making it more important that mission managers have robots at their service.
  • "By designing your vehicle to favor the robot, chances are good that anything the robot can do, humans can do as well, whereas vice versa isn't always true," NASA's lead for robotics flight controllers Laura Lucier told Axios.

Yes, but: It's unlikely robots will fully take over all spacewalking operations, and there are other ways to reduce the number of spacewalks needed aboard orbiting outposts.

  • Humans will be needed for excursions on the Moon or other bodies that are far less efficient with robots alone, such as collecting or examining rocks.
  • Axiom Space — a company that plans to build a commercial space station — is putting many of its critical systems inside its station and will make use of robotics outside, reducing the need for frequent spacewalks, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini told Axios.
  • It's also possible that spacewalking will be a draw for people hoping to visit privately built space stations, Suffredini said, though it's not yet clear what kind of market those stations will have.

Go deeper

In photos: D.C. and U.S. states on alert for pre-inauguration violence

National Guard troops stand behind security fencing with the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building behind them, on Jan. 16. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Security has been stepped up in Washington, D.C., and state capitols across the U.S. as authorities brace for potential violence this weekend.

Driving the news: Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by some supporters of President Trump, the FBI has said there could be armed protests in D.C. and in all 50 state capitols in the run-up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

11 hours ago - Politics & Policy

The new Washington

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Axios subject-matter experts brief you on the incoming administration's plans and team.

Rep. Lou Correa tests positive for COVID-19

Lou Correa. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) announced on Saturday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Correa is the latest Democratic lawmaker to share his positive test results after last week's deadly Capitol riot. Correa did not shelter in the designated safe zone with his congressional colleagues during the siege, per a spokesperson, instead staying outside to help Capitol Police.