Broken Down 'Robonaut' Departs the International Space Station to Begin His Repairs
Alas, the experimental robotic assistant Robonaut 2 was launched to the ISS in 2011 and moved around for only three years before breaking down. NASA is now bringing him back to Earth for repairs and analysis, and he's just departed on a SpaceX dragon capsule, which detached from the ISS and began its descent back to Earth.
The SpaceX capsule detached at 9:23 a.m. Eastern Time, when another robot on the ISS - a robotic arm for holding spacecrafts and capsules - released the ship. It's expected to splash down into the Pacific Ocean this afternoon, where it will be recovered and Robonaut 2 can set its robotic legs back on solid ground again.
In addition to launching @NASAInSight this morning, we're also sending a spacecraft back to Earth! Tune in live NOW as @SpaceX's #Dragon cargo vehicle departs @Space_Station, packed with hardware & scientific samples. Details: https://t.co/zn1w81dLw2 pic.twitter.com/vvInLJHS0W— NASA (@NASA) May 5, 2018
Interestingly, it was Robonaut 2's robotic legs that caused its breakdown in the first place. Since the beginning, Robonaut has been a DIY project, with the individual parts being shipped to the ISS to be assembled in space. Robonaut 2 came without legs during the initial arrival, with leg upgrades finally arriving in 2014; but upgrading him with a lower body led to several troubleshooting issues which couldn't be resolved.
Many of these problems were minor, but all sprang up at once: the Robonaut model on Earth was slightly different from the one in space, causing the leg attachment to take twice as long. Even once this was completed, Robonaut 2's live feed camera didn't start up properly, and the poor robot started degrading for different reasons which NASA still hasn't figured out yet.
Since then, Robonaut 2 has been offline, and NASA finally announced at the beginning of 2018 that the robotic astronaut would be coming back home later in the year. Ideally, NASA's Robonaut models were supposed to serve as robotic assistants for repairs around the space station and even EVAs ("extravehicular activity", when astronauts travel outside the station in full space suits).
Alongside Robonaut 2, other cargo onboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule include mice that were living on the ISS for experiments, and various samples of plants, insects, and human tissue. The cargo load is about two tons total, making for a big splash once the capsule hits the ocean.
By coincidence, this is the same day that NASA launched an Atlas V rocket containing their Mars InSight lander, which passed by the ISS shortly before Robonaut 2 departed on the Dragon capsule. Today has been a busy morning for the space agency.