Robot space traveler blasts off for International Space Station

Becoming potentially the cutest space traveler ever (with apologies to Laika, the Soviet space dog), the pint-sized Kirobo robot astronaut was launched from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Tanegashima Space Center early yesterday morning.

Kirobo — a combination of “kibo” (hope) and “robot” — began his journey at 4:48 a.m. Japan time aboard the Kounotori 4 (HTV4) cargo transfer vehicle atop an H-IIB Launch Vehicle No.4 (H-IIB F4). His trip is expected to take six days, after which he will arrive at the International Space Station and stay for about 18 months.

Kirobo is one of the two humanoid robots developed through the Kibo Robot Project, a collaboration between the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST), Robo Garage Co. Ltd., and Toyota Motor Corporation, with extensive cooperation from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The other robot is Mirata, a twin created as a backup for Kirobo who will participate in educational activities for children on Earth.

In November or December, astronaut Koichi Wakata will arrive at the International Space Station to take part with Kirobo in what’s billed as “the world’s first conversation experiment between a person and a robot in outer space.” Kirobo is primarily a “communication robot” and will serve as a companion for Japanese astronauts. According to his specs, he boasts voice recognition, natural language processing, information and communication functions, a facial recognition camera and more. Much like a human astronaut, before blasting off he was subjected to a battery of tests, chronicled here.

Development of the robot hardware was done by RCAST and Robo Garage, while Toyota was responsible for the voice recognition functions. Dentsu, a Japanese advertising and public relations company, managed the project and was involved in creating conversation content.

According to Dentsu, Kirobo’s schedule is expected to look something like this:

August 4, 2013 Robot astronaut Kirobo leaves Japan for the ISS
Aug-Sep, 2013 Kirobo speaks for the first time in outer space
Nov–Dec 2013 Commander Wakata arrives at the ISS
December 2013 Commander Wakata and Kirobo have their first conversation
May–June 2014 Commander Wakata leaves the ISS
December 2014 or later Kirobo returns to Earth

Anyone interested in following Kirobo more closely can download the “Where is Kirobo?” app, which is available for iOS and Android.

[ photo courtesy of Kibo Robot Project ]

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