August 23, 2011

NASA’s Robonaut Comes To Life


Nearly six months after being delivered to the International Space Station aboard the STS-133 Discovery mission, Robonaut 2 successfully passed its first test on Monday, making it the first human-like robot to become a resident of the outpost 220 miles above Earth.

The test involved powering up all of Robonaut´s systems, but the robot was not commanded to move; engineers said that will occur next week.

A member of the team tweeted under the name @AstroRobonaut “Those electrons feel GOOD! One small step for man, one giant leap for tinman kind.”

The four visible light cameras that act as Robonaut´s eyes turned on, as did the infrared camera located in the robot´s mouth, which is used for depth perception. Another tweet showed the view inside the American lab, Destiny. “Sure wish I could move my head and look around,” the tweet said.

Robonaut will be tested as a possible astronaut assistant. Mission Control in Houston cheered as everything came alive in Robonaut. The robot´s main computers, buried within its stomach, came on, as did more than 30 processors embedded in the arms for controlling the joints.

“Robonaut behaved himself,” said deputy project manager Nicolaus Radford. “Oh, Robonaut definitely got an ℠A.´ He won´t be held back a grade, if that´s what you want to know.”

“It was just very exciting. It´s been a long time coming to get this thing turned on,” he said.

The robot has been asleep for about a year, “so it kind of has to stretch out a little bit,” Radford told The Associated Press. “Just like a crew member has to kind of acclimate themselves to zero-gravity, our robot has to do a very similar thing,” he added.

For now, Robonaut exists only from the waist up. A pair of legs is currently being designed and should launch in 2013. For now, the robot is 3 feet 4 inches tall and weighs about 330 pounds.

If everything continues to run smoothly, the robot will be able to take on a few chores -- like taking velocity measurements inside the ISS. Those chores are slated to begin early next year.

For now, Robonaut is designed to remain inside the station. In the future, it, or another version, may be able to complete spacewalks, saving astronauts time and keeping them safe.

During Monday´s two-hour test, U.S. astronaut Michael Fossum and Japanese spaceman Satoshi Furukawa took Robonaut from its sleeping bag and placed it on its fixed pedestal. Afterward, Mission Control took over. Once the test was complete, the astronauts returned Robonaut to its sleeping bag. The robot is being stored in a fireproof bag, due to some components being flammable.

Mission Control was tempted to make the robot move, but held off. “We want to be respectful. It´s a very complicated piece of hardware,” said Radford.

Robonaut was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors. The robot was built for about $2.5 million. It was launched aboard Discovery on February 26, 2011. The robot was unpacked and checked by Astronauts Paolo Nespoli and Catherine Coleman when it arrived at the station.

Robonaut 2 also has a twin, which remains on Earth.


Image Caption: Robonaut 2, a dexterous, humanoid astronaut helper, will fly to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 mission.


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