October 22, 2017

02.03.11: Rise of the Robonauts.

The International Space Station (ISS) has a new permanent resident, one that will assist astronauts and become a valued member of the space station team. Robonaut 2 (R2) arrived at the ISS this week, delivered by STS-133 on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Initially, Robonaut 2 will be a stationary resident, to be installed in the Unity Node until it can perform more complex mobile tasks.

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27.05.10: A New Resident for the ISS.


Introducing...Robonaut 2. (Credit: NASA/JSFC).

Introducing...Robonaut 2. (Credit: NASA/JSFC).


    The final flight of shuttle Discovery STS-133 will carry a new permanent resident to the station; a robotic assistant known as Robonaut 2.  A joint NASA-General Motors design, Robonaut 2 looks like a life-sized Micronaut and will carry out routine tasks around the International Space Station. Currently undergoing testing at the Johnson Space flight center, Robonaut 2 will initially be tethered to the Destiny module aboard the ISS, although it (he?) will eventually receive more autonomy as proficiency increases. Robonaut 2 will perform such routine maintenance tasks as cleaning, housekeeping and setting up experiments. No word has been given if Robonaut will do any external station work, but of course, such a hazardous environment would be well suited to it. Arrival of Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS will be followed by a lengthy checkout in zero-g. Robonaut 2 may have a humanoid appearing upper torso, but will be able to interchange (Transformers fans take note) with a variety of lower bodies; the ISS version will perhaps sport one anchoring leg, but wheeled planetary rover bodies are envisioned. “R2” (we can hear the bad late night jokes now!) will have a 40 lb payload capacity, and a grasp of 5 lbs per finger. And before you comment that “objects don’t have weight in space,” let me remind you that they still have inertia. (Bazzinga!)

So, what will the astronauts think of this “robo-butler?” Will they name it, pose for pictures with it, and/or play chess with it? NASA has no official plans to make the robot interactive, although Robonaut Project Manager Ron Diftler says this would be relatively easy to do. And it would also provide good PR for NASA, at least until folks start worrying that their Roombas and Blue-ray players might rise up. Still, instead of a showdown scenario such as the one with Hal 9000 portrayed in 2001, Robonaut may prove to be an astronauts’ greatest ally, such as in last years’ indie flick Moon.  Versions of Robonaut may be common place and even mandatory residents in the spacecraft of the future, as we move beyond Low Earth Orbit and out into the solar system… can’t you just hear the call, “R2, try and increase the power…”