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Space exploration's next frontier: Remote-controlled robonauts

Shiho Takezawa and Hiromi Horie, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

As Japan's second female astronaut to fly up in the Space Shuttle Discovery, Naoko Yamazaki didn't expect to spend a quarter of her time dusting, feeding mice and doing other menial jobs.

It can cost more than $430 million a year to keep an astronaut in orbit, according to 3-year-old startup called Gitai Inc. It's only possible to keep humans alive in outer space because of the money and effort poured into ensuring their safety. One way to bring down the cost and risks is to send an avatar -- a remotely controlled robot.

"There's a need for robots that can help us," Yamazaki, 49, said. "Eventually, we should be able to do those tasks remotely or have them take over altogether."

As NASA opens up the International Space Station to private businesses and embarks on the Artemis mission to send astronauts back to the moon, there's a growing recognition of the need to keep spending under control, even as space-exploration projects grow increasingly complex.

That's where avatar technologies come in. Like a drone pilot, an operator equipped with wraparound screens or a virtual-reality headset will be able to move mechanical arms or an entire robot from far away. The building blocks already exist; the trick is to bring them together with software to make it all work. That's one reason why the space robotics market is projected to reach $4.4 billion by 2023.

"Avatar technologies will advance our opportunity for research in space tremendously," says Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman to go into space. With the right technologies, "we can actually have the best of both worlds" of robots and human curiosity, intelligence and interactivity, she said.

 

Sho Nakanose, chief executive officer of Tokyo- and San Francisco-based Gitai, is betting he has the right solution. He's developing a robonaut that can be operated from Earth, handling tasks that normally would require an astronaut to go into space.

"We'll see an era in which humans will be working in space, not just going to space," Nakanose said. "We want our robots to create bases for Blue Origin and SpaceX."

A former system engineer at IBM, Nakanose left to launch a technology startup in India, and he built robots on the side for fun. Eventually, he decided that machines purpose-built to work in space had the potential to become an important business in an industry where travel costs are sky-high.

Commercial launch provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, built its business to bring down the cost of space travel. Rockets by the Hawthorne, California-based company cost less than $60 million per launch to low-Earth orbit, compared with more than $400 million for a typical launch. The company also is working to slash the cost of sending humans into space and eventually establishing bases on the moon and Mars.

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