When Space Shuttle Discovery launched off to Space on its final mission on February 24th, 2011, among its roster of astronauts was a 'trainee' - And not just any ordinary rookie either, but the world's first humanoid robot astronaut that was heading to the International Space Station as a permanent resident.
Since then, Robonaut 2 or R2 as the astronauts like to call it, has been settling in, powering up and slowly but surely being tested, to ensure that it is can truly 'earn' its keep and become a productive member of the International Space Station.
R2 passed its first test on October 11th, 2012 when it was assigned to measure the airflow to ensure that the ventilation ducts were not clogged or blocked. The task required it to hold the gauge for a few minutes in front of the five vents that are dispersed in the various sections of the Space Station.
Though simple, the job which is important for obvious reasons, can be a little tricky because in order to get an accurate reading the gauge has to be held steady - Something that is a little difficult for humans to do in the microgravity environment. Also, thanks to the sensitivity of the instrument, airflow from the human breath can result in an inaccurate reading. Since R2 is firmly grounded to floor and does not breathe, it was the perfect 'man' for the job. Robonaut 2 did so well, that earlier this week, the astronauts decided to entrust him with a more important task - One fit for a real astronaut.
On January 2nd, 2013, working on instructions sent to him remotely from the ground crew, R2 was allowed to operate valves on a task board - A job that tested his dexterity which will be very important once it is ready to take on tasks that will be crucial for the well-being of his fellow team members. Once again, R2 stepped up to the challenge!
While these are small successes, they are all proving that R2 may one day be ready for his real mission - Extravehicular Activities AKA Space Walks to perform emergency repairs - Something it would be ideal for, since it can leave immediately given that it does need to depressurize and suit up like human astronauts.
Also, since the astronauts can 'see' through him thanks to the two video cameras that are fitted into his eye sockets, they can quickly determine what the problem is and devise a solution. In addition R2 can spend much more time outside the shuttle than human astronauts can, and therefore will be able to complete repairs and other tasks much faster.
But that's all in the future - For now R2, like most trainees will have to deal with the mundane tasks that nobody else cares to do. In its case it mean a promotion to be the official cleaner of the International Space Station - For believe it or not, even astronauts have to clean up every week! Its duties will include wiping handrails, vacuuming air filters and cleaning up wherever needed.
While it may seem like a cruel assignment for someone who cannot protest, the astronauts say it is part of the training to get it ready for the big day. That's because in order for R2 to be able to work outside the Space Station, it will have to learn to climb without using its hands and juggle a bunch of tools - Both skills the robot will be practicing, whilst cleaning!
Resources: NASA.gov, dailymail.co.uk, guardian.co.uk