August 9, 2013
Science fiction films frequently leave astronauts stranded in space with just a robot for company, from 1972’s Silent Running to 2012’s Prometheus. Now, reality is fast approaching fiction as a talking robot makes its way into space to serve alongside Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, who is to take over as commander of the six-person crew of the International Space Station (ISS).
Kirobo, whose name roughly translates as “hope robot”, was launched from a site in Japan this week on an unmanned supply rocket. When Wakata arrives at the ISS in November, his 34cm, 1kg companion will record the pair’s interactions, and relay controlroom messages to the commander and back. Their relationship will form part of a study to see if machines can help astronauts cope with extreme isolation. The loneliness of space will become a pressing concern if ever agencies decide to send humans to Mars.
Chris Hadfield, the Canadian former commander of the ISS, who returned to Earth in May, acknowledged the threat of loneliness in an online Q&A during his five months in orbit. “You’re a long way from Earth, you’re six people separated from the other six or seven billion,” Hadfield said.