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ISS Crew Gets a New Member: Robonaut 2

September 1, 2011

I’m finally back from my vacation and somewhat recovered enough from jet lag and catch-up work to post a new update, so here goes:

A while back I wrote about the lift-off of JAXA astronaut Satoshi Furukawa, who, along with RSA cosmonaut Sergey Volkov and NASA astronaut Michael Fossum, set off for the International Space Station on a five-month expedition. On August 23, a new crew member was awakened to assist the team: Robonaut 2, a prototype that NASA hopes will soon be able to able to work side-by-side with human astronauts.

Good to Go

Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS following a successful activation.

Crew members joke with NASA ground control while unpacking Robonaut 2

Robonaut 2, or R2, arrived at the ISS in February, riding aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on its final flight. At the time, it was unpowered and could do little more than pose for the cameras.

Robonaut 2 with ISS Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly

The result of a joint project between NASA and General Motors, R2 was developed to assist astronauts aboard the ISS with routine maintenance functions and possibly even help with hazardous jobs outside the space station in the future, as well as to test the feasability of robots playing more substantial roles in future space missions. A humanoid form was chosen so that it could operate in the same environments as humans without requiring special alterations to be made to accommodate it.

Upon being opened from its storage case, astronauts Mike Fossum and  Satoshi Furukawa put R2 through a ‘power soak’ to ensure its electrical systems are functioning properly. The first motion test is scheduled for early morning (US time) September 1.

Fossum and Furukawa get Robonaut switched on

R2 is currently just a head, torso, and arms (though still weighs in at about 150kg), although if initial tests are successful, additional components may be carried up by future missions to provide R2 with a battery for wireless operation, a mobility platform for more freedom of movement around the interior, and possibly even upgrades to allow it to work in the vacuum outside.

Robonaut 2’s head is almost completely taken up by the five cameras inside, arranged so as to give it depth perception. Despite its large brain, powered by 38 Power PC processors and fed by over 350 sensors, R2 will not be working autonomously: all of its actions will be directly controlled by station crew members or technicians on Earth. R2 is significantly stronger and faster than its predecessors, although the 10kg load limit of its arms and 5kg grasping force in each hand mean it won’t be doing much of the heavy lifting.

Currently, Robonaut 2 has its own Flickr photostream, its own Facebook page, and even its own Twitter feed, where it (or rather someone with NASA’s PR department) answers questions about its capabilities and mission (first tweet upon being switched on: “Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind”).

P.S. The Sep 1 motion tests appear to have gone well.

P.S. 2 [Added Sep 8, 2011] I realize this isn’t really Japan-related. I could justify it by saying that Japanese astronaut Furukawa is on board the ISS doing some of the start-up tests, but that’s a reach. Basically, I found this interesting and I needed to post something to snap out of my month-long doldrums.

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