NASA is currently testing a robot, which bears a striking resemblance to the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man, for future space missions.
The robot, dubbed Valkyrie, stands six feet and two inches tall, and clocks in at a whopping 275 pounds. The humanoid robot has been under development by NASA for several years now.
NASA joined forces with two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors in order to develop the machine’s dexterity and artificial intelligence (A.I.) for deep space missions. The space agency hopes to send the robot to Mars and potentially beyond the red planet.
Polishing the nuts and bolts
Ensuring the safety of astronauts is of prime importance for NASA. Therefore, it’s unsurprising the space agency would want to send a humanoid robot to Mars as a test run. The newest prototype, dubbed R5, was handed over to MIT and the Northeastern University in Boston for improvements.
The MIT team is headed by Russ Tedrake. The team members were selected due to their involvement in the 2015 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge. The researchers will receive up to $250,000 a year for two years from NASA.
“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, reported.
The R5 performs a variety of banal tasks, from cleaning chores to bringing items to the research team. Each leg is four feet and eight inches in length, and contains seven joints. Rather than having feet, R5 has grippers, which are equipped with a light camera and sensor used to build a 3-D map. Tether attachments used by astronauts for spacewalking served as a blueprint for engineers while designing the robot.
NASA said the motivation behind putting a humanoid in space was so to assist, and perhaps replace, astronauts working in extreme environments. A robot, for instance, can live in the vacuum of space for months while clinging to a space station, whereas a human space walker can live in space for only eight to nine hours.
By sending robots to the moon and Mars before people, they could set up base camps for astronauts in advance and stay behind whenever they leave. And if a task is too dangerous for a person, “We could let the machine go out and sacrifice itself,” reports Robert Ambrose from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “And that’s OK. It’s not human. We can build another one. We’ll build one even better,” he added.
Iron Man and the final frontier
NASA isn’t the only space agency in town contemplating on sending robots to deep space missions. Just last week, China’s main space agency contractor, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, debuted a robot which looks eerily similar to, again, Iron Man.
In addition to sporting the trademark colors of everyone’s favorite superhero in red, the robot has a glowing emblem which mirrors Iron Man’s reactor. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua reports the robot is capable of performing “complex manipulation tasks” autonomously, which were used during previous moon landings and space missions. Other news outlets claim the robot has hands which are nearly as flexible as human hands.
Tony Stark was able to save innocent civilians while rocking his Iron Man suit. Perhaps, in the near future, humanoids will accomplish a similar feat while coasting with astronauts along the murky plains of Mars.