Robonaut 2: first the space station – next stop Mars?

Nov 2, 2010
Tim Edwards

A humanoid robot is on its way to the International Space Station

The last-ever space shuttle mission is scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral this week carrying cargo for the International Space Station. Among the spare parts and technological upgrades aboard Discovery is Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that represents the most recent advancement in Nasa's efforts to develop a helper that can carry out dangerous tasks in space as dexterously as a human astronaut.

Robonaut 2, built at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, will become the first humanoid robot in space. Developed with the help of General Motors, who also hope to use the technology on production lines and in cars, R2 is the most dexterous humanoid robot yet and its presence on the ISS as an experimental model could one day lead to missions to the moon and Mars.

Although the casual observer may question why an effective astronaut helper should look like a human, Nasa says humanoid arms and fingers are necessary to allow the robot to use the same tools as astronauts – thereby saving money and cargo space on specially designed tools.

Actually, R2, which weighs 136kg, consists of no more than a head and torso. The robot will be confined to a fixed pedestal in the ISS Destiny laboratory module, where scientists will study how a robot works in a zero-gravity environment. Legs to enable the robot to move around the space station may be sent up later as upgrades. Further upgrades would allow R2 to survive the vacuum of space and go outside the station.

According to Nasa, it is envisaged that one day further lower body attachments may be added to R2 that enable it to walk – or drive – on the surface of the moon or Mars. A four-wheeled rover called Centaur 2 is currently being tested in Arizona as an example of such an attachment.

Putting a humanoid robot on the moon is already well within the capabilities of Nasa. Stephen Altemus, chief engineer at the Johnson Space Center, has told the New York Times about 'Project M', a "guerrilla effort" within Nasa is already underway to send a humanoid robot on a one-way trip to the moon for just $450 million – which compares extremely well to the $150 billion cost to Nasa of taking humans back there.

The idea has been around for a year, and Altemus has made some progress using discretionary money and bartering technology with other Nasa departments to get Project M off the ground.

Altemus sees Project M as more of a technology demonstration to inspire the nation's youth than a scientific mission, since a robot is limited in what it can do compared to a human astronaut.

One of the major problems is lack of money to develop the legs for Robonaut 2, but with the ISS on board – and the robot now part of an internationally backed science experiment - perhaps the humanoid robot has a starry future ahead of it.

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