NASA is going to be sending something it calls a “robot hotel” to the International Space Station aboard the next commercial resupply mission, which is set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this week. The robot hotel is more formally known as the “Robotic Tool Stowage” unit, or the RiTS for short, because NASA loves nothing quite so much as it loves acronyms.
Depending on how eager you are to anthropomorphize robots, the “hotel” designation might not be quite as appropriate as “garage” — this unit is essentially a protected parking space for robots when not in use, helping to protect them from potential dangers presented by being in space, including exposure to radiation, and the potential to get hit by micrometeors and other debris.
The first guests at the hotel will be two robots called Robotic External Leak Locators (RELL — because acronyms). They do what it says on the tin, finding leaks in the ISS exterior hull from the outside, which is a key job. And in the past, they’ve been stored inside the ISS when not in use, but space is at a premium in the station itself, so any time you can save some it’s good news for astronauts and for ongoing research and other equipment.
Plus, the RELLs need to be calibrated when they’re sent out to do their job, a process that requires 12 full hours. Because their new storage environment is already external, it’ll be much easier and quicker for the station’s Dextre robotic arm to retrieve them and set them to work.