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Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which has been ferrying all astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011, typically carries a crew of three. However, the MS-14 capsule that blasted off from a Russian spaceport in southern Kazakhstan on August 22, 2019, had just one passenger — a humanoid robot named Skybot F-850.
The autonomous android is the latest version of Russia's FEDOR (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research) robots, which were initially designed to help with search and rescue efforts. Skybot, which sat authoritatively in the commander's seat, is adept at numerous human skills, including driving a car, having short conversations, and even cracking a few jokes. But since it lacks the expertise required to pilot the spacecraft to the ISS, that task was conducted from the ground by mission control scientists from Russia's space agency, Roscosmos.
Instead, the six-foot-tall, 350-pound robot had another important task while on board. Without risking the lives of human astronauts, it helped Roscosmos researchers test the safety and flight experience of the new Soyuz-2.1a carrier rocket, which carried the spacecraft into orbit. The feedback will be crucial in determining if the rocket is safe to transport future human crews, including NASA astronauts, to space.
Though the launch into orbit went smoothly, Skybot's arrival at the ISS was delayed by three days, from August 24 to August 27, due to a botched docking by the Roscosmos mission control scientists. The delay did not seem to bother the robot, which announced its arrival by tweeting, “Sorry about the delay. Got stuck in traffic. Ready to work now.”
Skybot's two-week mission, which will end on September 7, is largely a test to gauge its ability to work effectively in microgravity, and involves simple tasks, such as using tools. If all goes well, Russia hopes to send more advanced versions of the FEDOR robots to help astronauts with special tasks. Alexander Bloshenko, the director of advanced programs and science at Roscosmos, told Space.com, "Future generations of such robots will solve tasks that are potentially of special risk for humans, such as extravehicular activities and telemetry operations on solar system bodies."
Though Skybot is the first Russian robot on the ISS, it is not the first of its kind at the space station. NASA's Robonaut 2, a legless humanoid robot, assisted astronauts with their day-to-day work from 2011 to 2014. Earlier this year, the US space agency dispatched two little robots called Astrobees to help astronauts with mundane chores, such as finding lost pieces of equipment. They are also responsible for collecting important data, such as the the spacecraft's radiation and carbon dioxide levels. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency's (ESA) social AI-powered CIMON — Crew Interactive Mobile Companion — spent a year assisting astronauts, before returning to Earth on August 27, 2019.