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British designers lend hand in NASA space mission


British design experts from Sheffield Hallam University are the brains behind a revolutionary robotic arm helping NASA refine its safety in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster. The artificial joints of the robot arm exactly replicate the workings of a human limb.

The Discovery space mission, re-scheduled to launch yesterday at 15:39 BST, will carry out vital safety tests using a 50-foot robot arm, designed with help from researchers at Sheffield Hallam University.

Professor Chris Rust and Dr Graham Whiteley, from the University’s internationally-renowned Art and Design Research Centre, spent three years pioneering a precision-engineered artificial arm, with joints that move just like real ones, to enable natural movement.

Their original aim was to help manufacture prosthetic arms, but their success in creating a true-to-life was picked up by NASA for possible development in future space missions.

This early ground-breaking work has helped developed the model arm that the seven-member Discovery crew will use in their 12-day mission.
The Discovery mission will take essential parts and supplies to the International Space Station and carry out vital safety tests, in the hope of reducing the possibility of accidents such as 2003’s Columbia disaster.

Dr Chris Rust said, “This research is a very practical demonstration of how creative thinking and practice can make a difference in fields of research which have always been thought of as the province of scientists and engineers.

“Our prototype arm stands as a demonstration test-rig for the joint designs for a robotic arm.”

The robotic arm prototype was adapted by NASA scientists at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, using plastic muscles. They used the new models to conduct arm-wrestling contests between a human and three different versions of a robot arm.

The arm may also be developed into a horse-like Lunar Rover with the ability to climb steep inclines like a horse or a monkey, making space exploration much easier.

Kate Burlaga | alfa
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