NASA to rocket humanoid robot to International Space Station

NASA’s Star Wars-like humanoid robot will fly on space shuttle Discovery

Perhaps taking a page from a Star Wars script, NASA said today it will send its newest humanoid robot known as Robonaut2 - or R2 -- capable of using the same tools as humans letting them work closely with people into space onboard the space shuttle's final mission. 

NASA and General Motors built the 300lb R2 as a faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced robot than past humanoid bots. R2 can use its hands to do work beyond the scope of prior humanoid machines and can easily work safely alongside people, a necessity both on Earth and in space, NASA stated. It is also stronger: able to lift, not just hold, a 20-pound weight (about four times heavier than what other dexterous robots can handle) both near and away from its body, NASA stated. 

21 critical future NASA missions 

The original Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space travel, was built by the software, robotics and simulation division at NASA's Johnson Space Center in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency 10 years ago, NASA stated.

 According to the companies they have combined advanced control, sensor and vision technologies to build robots capable of helping astronauts during hazardous space missions or GM build safer cars and factories. 

With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans.

For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space, NASA said. R2 will also be confined to the ISS' Destiny lab but  future enhancements may let it to move to other places, NASA said.

Testing the robot onboard the ISS will let researchers see how the robot performs in microgravity and the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments. The interior operations will provide performance data about how a robot may work side-by-side with astronauts. As development activities progress on the ground, station crews may be provided hardware and software to update R2 to let it perform other tasks, NASA said.   

The R2 and other robotics like it will be one of the future technologies NASA invests heavily in. In its 2011 budget, NASA asked for $3.0 billion over five years to develop a steady stream of robots for exploration to scout locations and demonstrate technologies that increase the safety and capability of future missions, NASA stated.

R2 will launch on space shuttle Discovery as part of the Discovery STS-133 mission planned for September. Discovery at this point is set to be the final shuttle launched into space.  Its nine day mission will bring the Express Logistics Carrier 4 and other spare components to the ISS. This will be the 134th and final shuttle flight and the 36th shuttle mission to the station. Other missions may be scheduled but they are not on the budget for now. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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