NASA Test New Robotic Arm System Functional in Minus 280 Degrees Fahrenheit

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The new technology will allow it to operate without a heat source in “extreme cryogenic environments.”

With future Artemis missions in mind, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is testing new technology that could be beneficial for the cold temperatures on the moon and Mars.

According to Monday’s announcement, the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm—or COLDArm—project “combines several new technologies to create a robotic arm system that can function in temperatures as low as minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 173 degrees Celsius)” without a heater.

When NASA returns to the moon, it will travel to unexplored areas around its south pole, which can be much colder at night than Mars; the lunar night lasts approximately 14 Earth days. According to the Lunar Planetary Institute, this part of the moon can be as cold as minus 267 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA noted that these conditions are difficult for current spacecraft that rely on energy-consuming heaters for warmth to keep equipment running. However, the new technology could allow for exploration without heat. 

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

COLDArm is able to work in extreme temperatures and environments because of several new technologies. Specifically, it uses gears made from bulk metallic glass—a solid, metallic material with unique composition and structure that make it tougher and stronger than ceramic and steel, respectively—which does not need lubricants or heat to work. Current lunar lander robotic arms “require heaters to keep the gears inside the arm from stressing and breaking when exposed to extremely cold temperatures experienced during the lunar night.” As a result, the new arms conserve power and mass for the mission because no heaters are necessary.

Its cold motor controllers can be installed near the science instruments because they do not need to be kept warm, so this means they do not need insulation or heavy cabling. COLDArm also has a six-axis force torque sensor in its wrist to regulate the amount of force it exerts and it will receive feedback to let the arm “feel” what it is doing in all directions. This sensor can operate in very cold temperatures.  

COLDArm uses a six and a half foot, or two meter, arm equipped with two commercially available cameras to use for 3-D mapping. The cameras use the same imaging sensor as the 13-megapixel color camera in NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. The arm can have a variety of attachments or small instruments attached to the end of it, such as a 3-D-printed titanium scoop for lunar sample collection. The arm can also deploy instruments to the surface. 

Lastly, COLDArm may be able to be programmed to autonomously perform tasks and collect pictures and sensor data without real-time human input. 

In September, NASA tested COLDArm in a test bed with materials simulating lunar regolith—or broken rock and dust on the moon’s surface—and COLDArm successfully gathered data on the properties of that regolith. COLDArm is now undergoing testing for space-like conditions that every mission will face. 

Motiv Space Systems helped develop the cold motor controllers on COLDArm in addition to building sections of the arm and assembling it. The project is funded through the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative and managed by NASA’s Game Changing Development program.

COLDArm is expected to launch within the next five years.