Humanoid Robot Hitching Space Ride on Shuttle Discovery

Robonaut 2, the first human-like robot designed for use in space, is ready for launch.
Robonaut 2, the first human-like robot designed for use in space, is ready for launch. (Image credit:, Stephanie Pappas)

HOUSTON ? After15 years of preparation, the first human-like robot designed for use in spaceis ready for launch.

The robothelper, called Robonaut2, is packed in a box-within-a-box and cushioned with foam for its trip on thespace shuttle Discovery scheduled to launch Nov. 1.

The humanoidrobot, which resembles the torso, head and shoulders of a person, was designedby NASA and General Motors to work alongside astronauts to complete chores andrepairs aboard the International Space Station. [Gallery:Robonaut 2: Robot Butler for Astronauts]

Eventually,NASA officials envision these helper robots could be sent into situationsdeemed too risky for humans.

The humanoid robot has even taken the Twitter world by storm. NASA's robot handlers have been posting messages for the space automaton under the name @AstroRobonaut since late July.

Robots inspace

Once aboardthe space station, the $2.5 million Robonaut 2 will be tested to be sure itworks as expected in the zero gravity environment. Over the next year, the Robonaut2's developers hope to test the robot on a variety of tasks, including handlingflexible fabrics and possibly helping out with some light housework.

"Thechallenge we accepted when we started the Robonaut project was to buildsomething capable of doing dexterous, human-like work," Rob Ambrose, theacting chief of the Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division at NASA?sJohnson Space Center in Houston, told reporters Thursday (Oct. 21). "Fromthe very beginning, the idea was the robot had to be capable enough to do thework but at the same time be safe and trusted to do that work right next tohumans."

Robonaut2's dexterity sets it apart from other robots. In addition to itshuman-like fingers, the machine has soft palms that can grasp and envelopobjects. It is also a "soft" robot, Ambrose said.

Metal orsteel appendages could nick or scratch tools, potentially creating a hazard ifan astronaut later picked up the same tool and tore his or her glove. As aresult, Robonaut 2 is padded all over to prevent that from happening.

The robot'ssensors are also designed with safety in mind. If the robot feels anunexpected object (like an astronaut's head) in its way, it is programmed tostop its ?movement. Or, if something hits Robonaut 2 with enough force, therobot will immediately shut down.

Coldstorage on space station

Robonaut 2will likely stay in its foam-filled box until late December or early January,Ambrose said. It will take a few hours to unpack the robot and just a fewminutes to boot it up using a laptop-like console. After incrementally testingvarious parts, the developers plan to begin giving the robot easy tasks, eventuallyprogramming it to carry out more complex goals.

Twopotential uses they would like to start testing include having the robot wipedown handrails and vacuum air filters ? two tedious tasks that station astronautsare currently required to complete.

For now,Robonaut 2 is just an upper body, so it will remain stationary inside the U.S.laboratory module. In the future, the robotics team plans to test differentlower bodies that will allow Robonaut 2 to maneuver around, inside and evenoutside the space station.

The launch"might be just a single step for this robot," Ambrose said. "Butit's really a giant leap forward for a tin man."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for sister site Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.