Space Station's Malfunctioning 'Robonaut' Will Be Sent Home For Repairs

Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 7:18PM
Space
Robotics
NASA
Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 7:18PM
Space Station's Malfunctioning 'Robonaut' Will Be Sent Home For Repairs
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NASA
The future of space travel is likely going to involve a lot of robots.

As artificial intelligence and robotic bodies develop, it makes sense to send machines out into space to do a lot of the menial tasks that human astronauts are currently stuck taking care of themselves.

As we look to the future of robotic space travel, it's worth remembering that our species' first attempt to send a humanoid robot buddy into space hasn't exactly gone according to plan. After years of trying to fix Robonaut, the International Space Station's resident machine (and unofficial Daft Punk cosplayer), NASA has made the decision to ship the robot back to Earth in order to complete necessary repairs.



Originally sent into space in 2011, Robonaut was meant to start life as a prototype test subject for missions involving robot helpers. And it did prove somewhat helpful at first, as it was given basic tasks to perform while being controlled remotely by operators back on Earth.

The problem that NASA ran into was that Robonaut was a DIY project. If you've ever tried assembling Ikea furniture, you'll know that it's hard enough to build a table in normal Earth gravity, so trying to give Robonaut an upgrade while floating in space ended up becoming difficult.



Robonaut was first launched into space without anything from the waist down - it was a torso, a head, and a pair of arms. Eventually, an attempt was made to pull a "Little Mermaid" on the bot by installing a pair of legs. The problem was that the model of robot that NASA experts had on Earth to for reference was actually a slightly different model to the one in space, but the leg installation operation was an eventual success (despite taking twice as long as expected to complete).

Problems could be seen instantly when NASA controllers on Earth were unable to see Robonaut's live feed upon rebooting the robot. While this was temporarily fixed, the droid soon degraded for unknown reasons, and astronauts and engineers alike were stuck scratching their heads as they tried to figure out what had gone wrong.

After years of periodically trying to figure out why Robonaut wasn't working, a process which even involved shipping parts of the machine back to Earth so that they could be tested, it was discovered that the robot lacked a ground cable, meaning that electricity was flowing to the wrong parts of Robonaut, shorting out some key systems while not delivering adequate power to others.

Now, very sheepishly, NASA has announced plans to bring Robonaut home so that it can be fixed properly. Unfortunately, because Robonaut is quite heavy, there's no set date yet for this earnest hero's return to Terra Firma, as it'll need to wait until there's space on a shuttle.

Even then, when Robonaut is sent back up into space, weight issues might mean that it'll yet again be forced to travel up without its legs. NASA experts insist that this time it'll be easier to get the robot up and running (almost literally) with a new leg operation once it's back in space, but considering how badly this went last time, this might need to be taken with a pinch of space-salt.

Eventually, if NASA can ever fix the thing, Robonaut will help out on ISS missions that include space walks, helping astronauts while dangling out in the vacuum of space.

Here's hoping that by the time this happens, the robot's kinks will all have been worked out. Otherwise, it could end up drifting out into the dark, to a place where legs really aren't that much help anyway.
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