15 August 2010

Robonaut 2 Heads in to Space – With his own Twitter Account

A Terminator in space? He looks more like C3P0 on steroids than a Terminator and if he was a Cyberdyne creation you could easily escape any homicidal intentions he might develop as he has no legs.  However, just as the Daleks had so much trouble getting up the stairs for so long, so Robonaut 2 (or R2 as he is known to friends) will overcome this shortcoming soon in the weightlessness of space.

R2 – and that’s a name you can’t help but love – is being sent by NASA to the International Space Station in a few months and will effectively become the seventh crew member, such are his duties.  He will be making history as the first robot with a humanoid form in space. Above is a visualization of how he might look on a space walk, but that won't happen for a good while yet.

NASA developed R2 in conjunction with General Motors, though both organisations are being very coy about how much he cost to build.  That means it was a lot.  He is certainly eye-catching though and weighing in at twenty one stone he is something of a heavyweight too.  Those immense arms look as if he has spent a little too much time in the gym but they are that size for some good reasons.

His strength certainly gives a Terminator a good run for its money. Those arms are strong enough to carry twenty pounds in our earth gravity.  Combine that strength with his dexterity – his fingers are almost as responsive as ours – and you have potentially a very useful addition to the ISS crew.
The Space Shuttle Discovery is coming out of mothballs to deliver R2 to the ISS on 1 November and once he is there he will be put through various routines to gauge how the weightlessness of space might effect his ability to operate. The mission, STS-133, will be Discovery's 39th and final mission.  The commander will be Steven W. Lindsey and the pilot will be Eric A. Boe.  There will be four mission specialists accompanying R2 to the ISS, Benjamin Alvin Drew, Jr, Timothy L. Kopra, Michael R. Barratt and Nicole Stott.  Although it is R2's first space flight it will be the second for the rest of the crew, except for Commander Lindsey, for whom it will be the fifth.

R2’s human shape is not an attempt at above atmosphere anthropomorphism. He looks like a human only because he is designed to operate like one.  Yet some might be forgiven for attributing characteristics to him that he doesn’t really possess.  After all, R2 has a twitter account and he will be using this to keep us informed about his outer space escapades.  Does this make him the first robot with a twitter account (answers on a postcard please)?  You can find his Twitter account  @AstroRobonaut.

When he gets to the ISS, R2 will be working in the Destiny lab but he may have access all areas in the future if he is modified.  He will not be returning to earth to a hero’s welcome, however.  This is a one way ticket for R2.  It will be fascinating to see him do his first space walk (or space shuffle, after all, he has no legs) and as a companion to the astronauts he will be able to perform some duties deemed too dangerous for those living and breathing.

That won’t be for a while, however.  As he is a prototype, R2 is not yet equipped with adequate shielding to function at the exterior of the ISS.  It’s so cold out there that his hydraulics would seize up.  However, before he makes the leap in to space he first needs to be tested to see how well he operates in microgravity.  There is also electromagnetism and radiation for him to contend with too.

However, it is hoped that R2 will be of great benefit up at the ISS. We can only keep our fingers crossed that the other crew members don’t complain about him being legless all the time.

Keep up to date with R2's Twitter feed here or click the image above.