Strong, but with a soft touch

Dextre on the exterior of the American Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2008. (Credit: NASA)

Dextre's hands. (Credit: NASA)

Maintenance of the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) was designed for easy upkeep over the course of its lifetime. Most of the equipment required to keep the Station's various systems running (like batteries, computers or switch boxes) are pre-packaged in boxes that can be changed with minimum effort when they need repairs.

Until recently, all the external maintenance on the ISS was done by astronauts—a task that requires a great deal of their time and preparation, but is also very risky. Dextre's job is to reduce the risk to human astronauts by relieving them of routine chores that need to be done in the harsh environment of space.

Typical tasks for Dextre include installing and removing smaller payloads (such as 100-kg batteries used on the Space Station), opening and closing covers or reconnecting cables—exactly the kind of odd jobs the handyman does daily here on Earth. Dextre can also be used as an on-orbit robotics platform for scientific experiments like positioning new telescopes above the ISS and trying out new tools.

Ask-an-expert - CSA Engineer Answers Fan Questions about New Vision System for the ISS

2016-01-15 - Last week, our fans asked us some great questions about Dextre's new vision system to inspect the International Space Station. Taryn Tomlinson, Senior Engineer at the Canadian Space Agency, answers your questions. More information on Ask-an-expert

A sophisticated new vision system for Dextre

A sophisticated new vision system for Dextre. (Credits: Canadian Space Agency, Neptec.)

A sophisticated new vision system for Dextre

The harsh environment of space takes its toll on the ISS: in addition to the natural aging of the orbiting lab's materials, the Station is regularly hit by small meteorites and small pieces of orbital debris. In 2020, the Canadian Space Agency will equip Dextre with an advanced new vision system—a hand-held tool that will be used regularly to inspect the Station's external surfaces and sleuth out signs of damage as early as possible. The vision system could also be used to assist visiting spacecraft as they dock and are installed on the ISS.

Dexterity, accuracy and sensitivity

As Dextre's name implies, the robotic handyman is equipped with special features that allow it to stand in for spacewalking astronauts and perform tasks that require dexterity, accuracy and the sensitivity to know, for example, how much force to apply (something humans do instinctively, but which doesn't come naturally to robots!).

Dextre's "hands" are equipped with force moment sensors that give the robot's computers the ability to detect how hard it should push or pull, and in what direction, within millimetres of its target (imagine pulling out a drawer in your kitchen cupboard and sliding it smoothly back into place without jamming it).