Canadians Excited to Send Robotic 'Superhero' into Space
This illustration depicts the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre maintenance robot at the end of the International Space Station's Canadarm2. Dextre and a Japanese module will be delivered to the ISS during NASA's March 2008 STS-123 mission.
Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Mr. Dextre stands taller than a house, has two seven-jointed arms and can fly around the Earth in about 90 minutes. But he is not a superhero, nor is "he" a person.

"Mr. Dextre," as NASA's latest space shuttle Endeavour crew has coined it, is actually a Canadian space-age robot bound for the International Space Station (ISS) early Tuesday morning along with Japan's first orbital room. Led by commander Dominic Gorie, the seven-astronaut STS-123 crew will start assembly of the giant robot in space later this week.

"Dextre is probably the most sophisticated robot to go on orbit," said Pierre Jean, acting program manager for the Canadian space station program, during a press conference here at Kennedy Space Center.

The special purpose dexterous manipulator, as Jean referred to Dextre, is a 3,440-pound (1,560-kilogram) maintenance tool designed to cut back on the number of dangerous trips astronauts make outside of the space station.

Robotic helper

Dextre can gently replace failed space station devices as small as a phonebook to phone booth-sized objects weighing more than 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms). Jean said changing batteries, for example, is a routine yet delicate task the robot can do with a person at its controls, either inside the ISS or on the ground.

"It's a dumb operation. You move the battery, you put a new one in," Jean said. "When you have to do these operations over and over, every time you have to use a [space station] crew person."

And using crewmembers means conducting risky spacewalks that expose astronauts to dangerous micrometeoroids, severe heat and cold, and strong radiation.

"In some ways a human may do the task quicker. Dextre, on the other hand, may take longer than a human to do certain servicing tasks," Jean said. He noted, however, that the device gives space station managers valuable options when it comes to performing orbital busy work, including the ability to fetch items for astronauts when they do have to work outside the ISS.

"You give the ability to not tax the crew by forcing them to conduct an [extravehicular activity]," he said of utilizing Dextre's five cameras, two gripper "hands" and a belt full of tools.

Out of work?

One might think an astronaut would feel threatened by such technological prowess. Wrong, says Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette, a veteran spaceflyer slated to journey to the ISS later this year.

"The robot, I think, is never going to replace humans in space," Payette told SPACE.com. "Humans will always need to be around to perform tasks robots may never be able to achieve."

Payette explained that Dextre will be extremely useful when assembled on orbit, but it will never match the mobility, dexterity or independent thinking abilities of people in almost any situation. She also thinks the design, construction and future operation of Dextre — the final piece of Canada's ISS mobile servicing system — will inform the creation of even better on-orbit robots.

That's a prospect she said is not the least bit threatening to astronauts, but rather exciting.

"It's absolutely essential, necessary step for want we want to do in the future," Payette said. "Just imagine being on the moon and being able to send a robot outside to do some dangerous work. I think that's where this is headed."