NASA launch: Going where no robot has gone before

US$200 million robot will take on most of the maintenance jobs required outside of the space station

When the space shuttle Endeavour launches early Tuesday morning, it will hold the makings of a 3,400-pound, 12-foot-tall robot with a 30-foot wing span.

The robot, named Dextre by its makers at the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, is slated to become the newest part of the crew at the International Space Station. The US$200 million robot is expected to take on most of the maintenance jobs required outside of the space station, and thus cutting back on the number of dangerous space walks the astronauts must make.

"Dextre is the most sophisticated space robot to ever to be launched," said Pierre Jean, acting program manager of the Canadian Space Station program. "The fact that up to this point any time things failed in orbit, crew members had to go out and deal with it. Now they can use a robot to fix hardware with 2-millimeter precision."

Canadian engineers have been working on Dextre - pronounced Dexter - for the past 10 years. With a sense of touch, two 11-foot arms and a wing span of 30 feet, Dextre can work with objects as large as a phone booth or as small as a phone book, according to Jean.

"Dextre was designed to make sure the International Space Station keeps working," added Jean. "There are 138 boxes on the outside of the space station. They're primarily the electronics behind the backbone of the space station, like remote power controller modules, DC-to-DC converter units and a nitrogen tank assembly. These are the boxes that Dextre can work on. When some of these big electronic boxes fail and systems are affected, the station could be reduced in functionality. Dextre could go off and fix it, and keep the International Space Station running at full capacity."

The Endeavour's crew is scheduled to start a 16-day mission Tuesday that will include installing the first piece of Japan's three-part Kibo laboratory, running experiments and assembling the giant robot.

Jean said Dextre is going into space in nine pieces on a pallet in the shuttle's cargo bay. If the robot was placed fully assembled in the shuttle prior to takeoff, it wouldn't be able to withstand the shaking and rattling. More important, though, Dextre can't be assembled on earth because it needs the weightlessness of space. On earth, it wouldn't be able to bear up under its own bulk, Jean said.

"It's never been built [into one piece] on earth," said Jean in an interview with Computerworld. "It's very strong and can maneuver large payloads in space, but it can't withstand its own weight. The first time Dextre will be assembled and operated as an entire system will be after launch."

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