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Dextre unloading equipment onto the International Space Station Dextre unpacks equipment on the International Space Station. (NASA)

Space Robots Blast Off

A new group of astronauts is working in outer space—and they’re not human

By Zach Jones | February 15 , 2011
R2 shakes the hand of a real astronaut. Can you tell which is which? (NASA)
R2 shakes the hand of a real astronaut. Can you tell which is which? (NASA)

Dextre is one of the latest astronauts to land on the International Space Station, or ISS. He’s also 12 feet tall. Dextre is a robot, and he is one of several new robotic astronauts being sent into outer space.

Robots are designed to do jobs that are too difficult or dangerous for humans. Last week, while the human crew was sleeping, Dextre lifted and installed equipment delivered by a Japanese spaceship. Each container was about the size of a kitchen stove.

Technicians in Houston, Texas, used remote controls that move Dextre’s long arms to carry the cargo and pick up tools from his tool belt. Each of Dextre’s arms can stretch up to nine feet long. Like a space handyman, Dextre has his own workbench, where he can fix or adjust equipment.

SPACE STATION SUPPORT

The ISS floats in space, orbiting (circling around) Earth. It’s hard for humans to make repairs on the outside of the station. Astronauts have to put on spacesuits to survive outside their ship. Spacewalks also take a long time because it’s difficult for humans to walk around without gravity—the force that keeps us from floating away from the ground here on Earth.

“The onboard crew's valuable time can therefore be saved for science and research instead of time-intensive maintenance spacewalks,” said Tim Braithwaite of the Canadian Space Agency, the organization that built Dextre.

NASA’S NEWEST ASTRONAUT

Dextre has been so successful over the past few years that the American space agency NASA is planning to send another robot into space next week. On February 24, a robot named R2 will join Dextre on the ISS. Unlike Dextre, R2 is humanoid, meaning that he looks and acts like a human.

R2 is the first robotic astronaut built by the U.S. The human look-alike was designed to work inside the space station side by side with real astronauts. Dextre’s hands are made for heavy lifting, but R2’s hands work just like a human’s—only stronger.

Dextre and R2 are two of the most advanced robotic helpers in space. Scientists at NASA are hard at work on upgrades for R2. In Texas, researchers are finishing a four-wheel vehicle that can be attached to R2 so that he could one day explore Mars.

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