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NASA’s Curiosity in the Mars Science Lab
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mechanical explorers are making their mark on extraplanetary exploration and proving that the future of space depends on machines.

In Earth’s orbit, 240 miles above the planet, an android is coming online.

The humans call their mechanical crewmate Robonaut 2 (R2), and there’s never been anything quite like him. Unlike most robots, he’s built in human form: a torso, to be exact, with two long arms tipped with five fingers each. His head contains a slew of cameras and an infrared, heat-detecting sensor, all hidden behind a reflective visor.
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R2 in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station
NASA

R2’s crewmates are calibrating the machine for work in space. Things don’t take the same effort without gravity, so his programming and mechanical settings need to be calibrated for his zero-g life in orbit. When that’s done, R2 will get to work, likely performing tasks like monitoring equipment, adjusting dials and doing simple maintenance. In the future, NASA plans on giving the 330-pound robot a pair of legs so he can move around his home — the International Space Station (ISS) —always attached to a bulkhead to prevent him from floating away or getting damaged.
“This is a really good opportunity to understand the interface between humans and robotics here in space,” said Catherine Coleman, a former ISS crew member, during an interview from the space station when the android arrived.

A robot with the same dimensions as a human has advantages, like being able to access the same space as people and having the ability to use standard tools in their anthropomorphic hands. The lack of a need for specialized equipment makes it easier to bring these robots into space, where each pound of gear costs $10,000 to launch into orbit.

“This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles,” says John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office.

But R2 isn’t the only mechanical being aiming to prove that robots belong in space.