Later this year, NASA will have its first human-like robot take up permanent residence in the International Space Station. Due for launch on the shuttle Discovery as part of its ST-133 mission, this affable android dubbed Robonaut 2 -- or R2 for short -- was co-developed by NASA and General Motors to serve as an assistant to human astronauts as well as to evaluate its capabilities while toiling in a slightly less-exotic environment, as a tireless helper on an assembly line.

Consisting of a head and torso with two arms and two hands, the 300-pound R2 will be subjected to a series of tests to see how well it responds to weightlessness, radiation, shock/vibration and electromagnetic interference while based inside the space station's Destiny laboratory. Preliminary evaluation work in several of those areas is already underway as part of R2's extensive pre-flight checkout.

The Start of a New Era

"The use of R2 on the space station is just the beginning of a quickening pace between human and robotic exploration of space," said John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office. "The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."

The station already has an "outside" robot named Dextre that was built by the Canadian Space Agency and consists of two, long arms capable of performing tasks that would normally require a conventional human spacewalk to complete. Depending on how the on-location tests go, NASA feels R2 could one day be "enhanced" to not only expand its original lab capabilities but to occasionally step outside and give Dextre an additional pair of helping hands, when necessary.

Bringing It All Back Down To Earth

For all of its outer-space aspiration, General Motors sees R2 and its successors as having some very real potential much closer to home. The automaker said it plans to use a number of the technologies developed and perfected in R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems as well as in direct manufacturing plant applications that can further optimize the basic vehicle assembly process.

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