The space android called Robonaut 2 was just unpacked from its box last month, but NASA is already thinking up jobs for the darn thing to do, such as replacing parts on the International Space Station and wielding a fire extinguisher. The robotic exercises are among five sets of tests that mission planners have drawn up for next year, aimed at addressing future challenges in spaceflight.
Experts on space station utilization as well as future exploration have been discussing the proposed tests for some time now, said Pete Hasbrook, increment manager for the ISS Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center. A go-ahead for Robonaut's chores and the other space station tasks is likely to come later this month, he said today in Washington at Explore Mars' first International Space Station and Mars Conference.
Robonaut 2 is a 300-pound robotic torso equipped with a camera-equipped head as well as a pair of arms with five-fingered hands. It's designed to take on simple tasks that might otherwise be done by an astronaut, inside or outside the space station. The contraption, developed in partnership with GM, was delivered to the station aboard the shuttle Discovery in February and is due to begin checkouts in May.
Hasbrook and his fellow planners are looking farther ahead, to the station's experimental program between March and September of 2012. During that time frame, they'd like Robonaut 2 to simulate a spacewalking routine that requires the use of a grabber tool and a pistol-grip drill to work on a type of electronics box known as an orbit replaceable unit, or ORU. The robot could also be commanded to pick up a fire extinguisher and spray its contents onto a simulated experiment rack ... as if there were a fire in space.
Those are the kinds of jobs that Robonaut might be asked to do, under human supervision, during an actual spacewalk or a real emergency.
Testing technology ... and psychology
Now that the space station's construction phase is complete, Hasbrook and others are thinking about ways to use the orbital outpost as a test bed for the technologies that will be needed for future space missions. Here are three other experiments that Hasbrook said were under consideration:
- Taking an extra look at data from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a physics experiment due to go up during the next space shuttle mission, to gain further insights into the radiation environment in outer space.
- Conducting trials of equipment that could provide "active" radiation shielding for spacecraft, perhaps by setting up an electromagnetic field to repel the charged particles thrown off by the sun.
- Installing cameras on remote-controlled, thruster-equipped gizmos that float around in space like high-tech beachballs. The devices, known as SPHERES, could conceivably be used to inspect out-of-the-way corners of the space station or look over the shoulders of spacewalkers.
The fifth test has more to do with psychology than technology, and it could be at least as interesting as Robonaut's workouts: For seven days, audio and video transmissions between the space station and Mission Control would be delayed by 10 minutes. That arrangement is aimed at simulating the signal gaps that would be encountered during missions to Mars or other far-out destinations.
The 10-minute delay would even apply to the phone calls and video chats that space station astronauts conducted with their loved ones on Earth, Hasbrook told me. That might be frustrating for the astronauts, but the folks at Johnson Space Center are intrigued by the idea, said Trey Brouwer, ISS integration manager in flight operations for the United Space Alliance.
As a safety measure, data transmissions from the space station would not be delayed. Brouwer said the mission planning team still has to develop the detailed flight rules for the experiment. For example, what's the protocol in case a real emergency comes up during the simulation?
More autonomy for humans in space
Brouwer said the experiment would help NASA plan for scenarios in which ground controllers couldn't interact with astronauts in real time due to the immense distances involved. During a mission to Mars, the communications gap would vary depending on the changing distance between Earth and Mars. Theoretically, it could take as little as 3 minutes or as long as 22 minutes for a signal to get from one planet to the other.
Under those conditions, the home-planet headquarters would serve less as "Mission Control" and more as "Mission Support." Astronauts would have to have far more autonomy during a mission. At least that's what researchers have reported in previous studies on Mars mission architecture.
Next year's simulation is likely to be an eye-opener, for the space station astronauts as well as ground controllers.
"It's going to be an interesting exercise because we are so used to 'baby-sitting,'" Brouwer said. "The crews have really relied on us, and we're going to have to step away from that."
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."