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Sci-Tech

Cute 'n' creepy SpaceBok robot made to hop on other planets

Step aside, SpotMini. SpaceBok is the cheerfully jumpy robot built for the moon, Mars and asteroids.

SpaceBok poses for a beauty shot.

ESA

SpaceBok, a four-legged jumping robot designed for space exploration, is just strange enough to be unsettling, conjuring visions of a sci-fi robot apocalypse on other planets. I'm in love.

Off-world gravity is pretty different from what we have here on Earth. Astronauts on the moon bounced around like kangaroos. Mars is a little better, but human visitors will still feel like lightweights. SpaceBok is designed to work well in these sort of low-gravity environments, where jumping could be an efficient mode of transportation.

Swiss university students at ETH Zurich (the same place that brought us the dog-like Anymal robot) and ZHAW Zurich are testing SpaceBok at a European Space Agency facility.

ESA released a video this week of SpaceBok in action. It can walk or jump using its springy legs. Researchers hooked it up to a test rig that simulates the moon's gravity and let it practice its jumping skills. The team was even able to use the bot like a giant Pong game, with two researchers bouncing it back and forth across the floor.

Jumping is one thing. Controlling its movement and the landing is another. The SpaceBok team adopted a reaction wheel design, a component some satellites use to orient themselves, to help control the robot's leaps. "It can be accelerated and decelerated to trigger an equal and opposite reaction in SpaceBok itself," said team member Philip Arm.

The bot's designers see a future where it could explore not just the moon or Mars, but also extremely low-gravity asteroids. Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft tried this idea out last year when it set a hopping lander on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu.

SpaceBok will move on to more rigorous tests in the future to see how it handles rocky environments and the outdoors.   

Many of our space exploration robots have been based around wheeled designs, including NASA's Mars rovers. One day, those rolling rovers might be joined by jump-happy robots like SpaceBok. I look forward to welcoming our future bouncy Mars robot overlords.