Space Exploration

Astronauts Could Deploy Extra Arms to Stay Stable on the Moon

Walking along on the surface of the Moon, as aptly demonstrated by the Apollo astronauts, is no easy feat.  The gravity at the Moon’s surface is 1/6th of Earth’s and there are plenty of videos of astronauts stumbling, falling and then trying to get up! Engineers have come up with a solution; a robotic arm system that can be attached to an astronauts back pack to give them a helping hand if they fall. The “SuperLimbs” as they have been called will not only aid them as they walk around the surface but also give them extra stability while carrying out tasks. 

The team of MIT engineers identified the problem when considering movement across the lunar surface and were inspired to innovate when they saw videos of astronauts struggling. They acknowledged that while the astronauts were physically very capable, the combination of bulky space suits and 1/6th gravity was recipe for disaster. If an astronaut becomes unbalanced then even though gravity is less, their inertia is the same and they will still fall. 

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

The solution they designed has been dubbed the Supernumerary Robotic Limbs can be built into their backpack and when needed, be extended. A prototype has been built and it includes a control system to operate the limbs. It was tested on a willing group of volunteers who donned suits to restrict mobility in an attempt to simulate the cumbersome space suits.

As the volunteers attempted to get up from sitting or lying position, the researchers looked at how they moved and how the restrictive suits limited their mobility. The suits were adjusted to more closely simulate a space suit. Using the suit to mimic the stiffness of a traditional suit they got as close as possible to real world testing. The movements of the team in the restricted suits was similar to normal movement but the effort was far less when the SuperLimbs were used. They also found that the volunteers used a common sequence of motions from one step in the process to the next. Using this information enabled them to build the control system to provide maximum efficiency. 

The control system that has been built is intelligent enough to detect the movement of the volunteers be they lying on their side, front or back. Having learned how people usually get up from such positions the system can detect the movement and provide suitable assistance to help. 

The team hope that the benefits of the system will go further than just helping the astronauts recover. By making it easier to get up, the astronauts will be able to conserve energy for other important tasks. With Artemis just around the corner and a return to human lunar exploration, it may well be that the ‘SuperLimbs’ will soon be a regular sight on human space explorers.

Source : Robotic “SuperLimbs” could help moonwalkers recover from falls

Mark Thompson

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