NASA Revolutionary New Robotic Arm Really Knows How To Chill Out

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Illustration of the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm (COLDArm), which will significantly improve the utility of robotic arms for lunar landers. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech

Future planetary missions could explore in extremely cold temperatures that stymie existing spacecraft, thanks to a project under development at JPL.

“Going to the Moon, we need to be able to operate during colder temperatures, particularly during lunar night, without the use of heaters,” said project principal investigator Ryan McCormick. “COLDArm would let missions continue working and conducting science even in extreme cryogenic environments.”

A JPL engineer examines the 3D-printed titanium scoop of NASA’s Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm (COLDArm) robotic arm system. The arm is designed to function in frigid temperatures that would stymie current spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To explain the project, McCormick recalls a scene from the 1991 movie “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in which a hostile android made of liquid metal is stopped cold – literally frozen solid – by a giant spill of liquid nitrogen. “The bad guy can’t work in those temperatures, but COLDArm could,” McCormick said.

This past September, in a JPL test bed filled with material to simulate lunar regolith (broken rock and dust on the Moon), COLDArm successfully completed experiments that assessed its ability to gather data on the properties of that regolith. Now COLDArm has been sent on to complete the same rigorous testing in spacelike conditions that every mission faces. It’s targeting a launch in the late 2020s.

NASA’s COLDArm combines several new technologies that allow it to operate in temperatures as cold as minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 173 degrees Celsius) without the use of energy-consuming heaters required by robotic arms on current spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because the arm’s cold motor controllers don’t need to be kept warm in an electronics box near the core of the spacecraft, they can be installed closer to the science instruments, requiring no insulation and less heavy cabling.

And a sensor embedded in COLDArm’s “wrist” gives the arm feedback, allowing it to “feel” what it’s doing in all directions, like a human jiggling a key into a keyhole and turning the lock. That device, called a six-axis force torque sensor, can also operate in extreme cold.

In addition to employing cameras designed for commercial use, COLDArm leverages other technology that has been proven aboard Ingenuity: a powerful processor akin to those used in consumer smartphones and open-source flight software, called F Prime, that JPL developed. Like the Mars helicopter, COLDArm could operate autonomously, performing tasks and collecting pictures and sensor data without real-time input from mission controllers back on Earth.

Motiv Space Systems, a partner on COLDArm, developed the cold motor controllers and also built sections of the arm and assembled it from JPL-supplied parts at the company’s Pasadena, California, facility.