“Legs are going to really kind of open up the robot’s horizons,” said Robert Ambrose from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
It’s the next big step in NASA’s quest to develop robotic helpers for astronauts. With legs, the eight-foot Robonaut will be able to climb throughout the 260-mile-high outpost, performing mundane cleaning chores and fetching things for the human crew.
The robot’s gangly, contortionist-bending legs are packed aboard a SpaceX supply ship that launched, more than a month late. It was the private company’s fourth shipment to the space station for NASA and is due to arrive Sunday morning.
Robonaut 2 – R2 for short – has been counting down the days.
“Legs are on the way!” read a message Friday on its Twitter account, @AstroRobonaut. (OK, so it’s actually a Johnson Space Center spokesman doing the tweeting.)
Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s unmanned capsule, Dragon, holds about two tons of space station supplies and experiments, Robonaut’s legs included.
Until a battery backpack arrives on another supply ship later this year, the multimillion-dollar robot will need a power extension cord to stretch its legs, limiting its testing area to the U.S. side of the space station. Testing should start in a few months.
Each leg – 4 feet, 8 inches long – has seven joints. Instead of feet, there are grippers, each with a light, camera, and sensor for building 3-D maps. “Imagine monkey feet with eyes in the palm of each foot,” Ambrose said.
NASA engineers based the design on the tether attachments used by spacewalking astronauts. The legs cost $6 million to develop and $8 million more to build and certify for flight. The torso with head and arms delivered by space shuttle Discovery in 2011 on its final flight cost $2.5 million, not counting the untold millions of dollars spent on development and testing.
Ambrose acknowledges the legs are “a little creepy” when they move because of the number of joints and the range of motion. “I hope my knee never bends that many degrees, but Robonaut has no problems at all,” said Ambrose, chief of software, robotics and simulation division, at Johnson.
The grippers will latch onto handrails inside the space station, keeping Robonaut’s hands free for working and carrying things. Expect slow going: just inches a second. If Robonaut bumps into something, it will pause. A good shove will shut it down. “The robot’s not going to have as much fun as the astronauts,” Ambrose said. “No jumping, no somersaults, no flying.”
Robonaut already has demonstrated it can measure the flow on air filters, “a really crummy job for humans,” Ambrose said. Once mobile, it can take over that job around the station.
How about cleaning the space station toilets? “I have a feeling that’s in Robonaut’s future,” Ambrose said.
This robot will stay indoors as it learns how to climb. The next-generation model, now in development and targeted for a 2017 launch, will venture outside on spacewalks. That’s where the real payoff lies.
A robot doesn’t need oxygen tanks and fancy spacesuits. A robot never tires or gets bored. Why, a robot could stay out in the vacuum of space for days, weeks, or even months, clinging to the station. Human spacewalkers are limited to eight or nine hours.