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Associated Press
After three years without them, NASA’s Robonaut humanoid space station robot is getting legs. Each leg, 4 feet 8 inches long when extended, has seven joints. Instead of feet, there are grippers with a light, camera and sensor for building 3-D maps.

NASA robot taking next big step, literally

– Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot – now stuck on a pedestal – is going mobile at the International Space Station.

“Legs are going to really kind of open up the robot’s horizons,” said Robert Ambrose from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

It’s the next big step in NASA’s quest to develop robotic helpers for astronauts. With legs, the 8-foot Robonaut will be able to climb throughout the 260-mile-high outpost, performing mundane cleaning chores and fetching things for the human crew.

The robot’s gangly, contortionist-bending legs are packed aboard a SpaceX supply ship that launched Friday, more than a month late. It was the private company’s fourth shipment to the space station for NASA and was due to arrive this morning.

Robonaut 2 – R2 for short – has been counting down the days.

“Legs are on the way!” read a message on its Twitter account, @AstroRobonaut. (OK, a Johnson Space Center spokesman does the tweeting.)

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s unmanned capsule, Dragon, holds about 2 tons of space station supplies and experiments, Robonaut’s legs included.

Until a battery backpack arrives on another supply ship this year, the multimillion-dollar robot will need an extension cord, limiting its testing area to the U.S. side of the space station. Testing should start in a few months.

Each leg is 4 feet 8 inches long and has seven joints. Instead of feet, there are grippers, each with a light, camera and sensor for building 3-D maps.

“Imagine monkey feet with eyes in the palm of each foot,” Ambrose said.

NASA engineers based the design on the tether attachments used by spacewalking astronauts. The legs cost $6 million to develop and another $8 million to build and certify for flight. The torso with head and arms delivered by space shuttle Discovery in 2011 on its final flight cost $2.5 million, not counting the untold millions of dollars spent on development and testing.

Ambrose acknowledges the legs are “a little creepy” because of the number of joints and the range of motion.

“I hope my knee never bends that many degrees, but Robonaut has no problems at all,” said Ambrose, chief of software, robotics and simulation division at Johnson.

The grippers will latch onto handrails inside the station, keeping Robonaut’s hands free for working and carrying things.

Robonaut already has demonstrated it can measure the flow on air filters, “a really crummy job for humans,” Ambrose said.

How about cleaning the space station toilets? “I have a feeling that’s in Robonaut’s future,” Ambrose said.

Future Robonauts could be deployed in advance to get everything running before the humans arrive, then stay behind when they leave.

And if there’s a chore too risky for humans, “we could let the machine go out and sacrifice itself,” Ambrose said, “and that’s OK. It’s not human. We can build another one.”

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