The Humanoid Robot Space Explorer

Valkyrie can move its hands, bend its legs, turn door handles, and even dance. Its next task? Going to Mars.

The Juno spacecraft recently made history by entering Jupiter’s orbit, which means that while humans have yet to land on another world, our robotic creations continue to leave their fingerprints, so to speak, on the galaxy.

Depending on one’s definition, every probe, lander, and rover is a robot, which means robots have explored  comets, asteroids, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Ceres, and even interstellar space, and thus far have landed on seven different extra-terrestrial bodies. Many of these robots, particularly the Philae lander (RIP) and the Yutu rover, attracted both interest and an outpouring of emotion when they “went to sleep” for the last time or appeared to malfunction, but none of these robots have looked like people.

When might we see—and inevitably personify—a humanoid robot exploring space?

The Robonaut 2 (R2) made the trip to the International Space Station back in 2011. Initially, the 300-pound robot had a torso, arms, and a head equipped with five cameras. Then in 2014, NASA sent a pair of legs on a cargo ship, and now R2 has reedy pins and clamp feet and looks like a cross between a person and a wacky inflatable air dancer. Robonaut can pick up and hold 20 pounds of tools in human-like hands with tendon-controlled fingers. It can act autonomously or via remote control from either the ISS or from Earth, and in addition to working inside of the station, NASA plans on using it to perform extravehicular repairs and tasks.  

Robonaut was a precursor to and the inspiration for Valkyrie, also known as R5, a humanoid robot that stands six feet tall and weighs 290 pounds. Valkyrie has 44 degrees of freedom—there are 44 different ways the robot can move—many of which are in its hands, comprised of three fingers and a thumb. Its legs, unlike R2’s, actually look, bend, and function like human legs. Valkyrie runs on a battery, which currently lasts about an hour but recharges fairly quickly.

Unveiled in 2013, Valkyrie’s mainstage debut was in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, where it failed to advance from the trial stage to the finals of the competition designed to showcase robots designed to perform disaster-relief tasks. But that was just the beginning of Valkyrie’s real-world experience and its designers have learned a lot since then. NASA has since capitalized on a National Robotics Initiative grant to pursue work on Valkyrie, which its designers hope will pave the way for manned missions to Mars.

NASA has outsourced work on Valkyrie to Northeastern University, MIT, and the University of Edinburgh, each of whom now has its very own Valkyrie to work with for the next two years. The three institutions will develop software that enables the robots to consistently and successfully complete tasks necessary to space exploration, such as manipulating airlock hatches, attaching and removing power cables, repairing equipment, and retrieving samples.

The schools will demonstrate their work at the upcoming Space Robotics Challenge, where the winner gets $250,000 and continued support from NASA. Valkyrie has already received significant upgrades, and now it can do something essential to space travel: dance.

Valkyrie can also walk and bend its joints, and it can turn a door handle or knob. But because Valkyrie is bipedal, more work needs to be done to boost its ability to navigate the rough Martian terrain and to ensure that it can get back on its feet if it falls over. The robot needs to be able to operate autonomously, given the delay in relaying remote commands from Earth.

With the help of teleoperations software, as well as virtual and/or augmented reality software, a human could turn Valkyrie into an avatar, using it to explore and manipulate objects,  perform tasks, trouble-shoot, and perform repairs. Plans for Mars settlements involve sending robots ahead of a human crew to build habitats and install life support systems before the astronauts’ arrival. Valkyrie—or more likely, a squad of Valkyries—could serve as a guide not only when it comes to set up, but also when it comes to having, as they say, eyes and ears on the ground.

The question of whether robots or humans should lead space exploration has been the source of much debate in the scientific community. Robots are the safer option—they’re physically hardy, don’t need to breathe, and can be replaced. But they don’t possess human curiosity, intuition, or critical thinking skills. They also aren’t as inspiring as human pioneers.

While the Curiosity Rover has made some amazing discoveries, like the presence of organic molecules and water on Mars, no one hails it a hero. Maybe heroism isn’t necessary to galvanize interest in space exploration, or maybe there’s room in the annals of history for trailblazing robots. Either way, the next cosmic giant leap for mankind will likely involve our mechanical counterparts.