NASA: Encounter with a Centaur

On Monday, September 12, I attended a VIP tour at a NASA encampment in the Arizona desert north of Flagstaff.  At this site (for the previous 2 weeks), space scientists and engineers had been testing their hardware, software, and communication’s equipment.  In the Arizona desert, NASA staff and contractors had a variety of activities set up for the press and VIPs including:
 
  • rides in the space exploration vehicle (SEV), and for some a chance to drive,
  • tours of the habitat demonstration unit (HDU), or deep space residence and science facility, and
  • demonstrations of Centaur 2 (or R2C2), the bizarre grafting of a humanoid robot onto a space rover.

I went to the desert site to see and discuss water treatment and reuse system developed and being developed by NASA.  But I also enjoyed the introductory presentations and demonstrations. 

A decade ago, the long-term goal of NASA was, as proposed by the second Bush administration, to travel to the Moon and then to Mars.  That was changed by President Obama’s science team, and now the goal is asteroid investigations.

“Centaur 2” was of particular interest.  The reason it is called Centaur is because of its striking resemblance to the Greek mythical character which has a man’s torso, arms, and head married to a horse’s body.

Stone Carving from the Parthenon in Athens Illustrating a Mythological Centaur

The NASA/GMC version tested in Arizona is the top half of a robotic man grafted onto a sophisticated rover. 

Demonstrating the Centaur 2 at an Arizona Desert Field Site

The legs of the mythical horse are replaced by wheels.

According to NASA’s PR pamphlet:

. . . the Centaur base can lower or raise itself to and from the ground and turn its wheels, individually or as a group, in any direction, allowing it to turn in place and drive in any combination of forward and sideways.  With these features, Centaur 2 could remotely scout areas for potential crew visits or assist astronauts in spacewalks.

Centaur 2 can be run in either remote-control or autonomous mode.

Demonstrating Various Modes for Interacting with Centaur2

I was curious about the design, it looks like an affectation.  But the NASA employees assured that that is not the case.  There is definite functionality to the strange grafting.  They felt that it is easier for astronauts to relate to its partial humanoid form, and that with the robotic hands, items like tools can be shared by the astronauts and Centaur 2.  NASA’s PR staff had video footage of R2C2 moving around and stopping to pickup a rock.

The robotic half (Robonaut 2 or R2) of Centaur 2 was transported to the space station in February 2011.  It was unpacked in April and powered up for the first time in August.  In the space station, it is making both history, as the first humanoid robot in space, and progress, as engineers get their first look at how a humanoid robot actually performs in the absence of gravity.  The idea being that humans and robots exploring together will produce greater results that either could achieve alone.

It is invisioned robots will serve as scouts, providing advanced maps and soil samples, and beginning work on the infrastructure that astronauts will need.  The crew that follows would then be better prepared for the exploration ahead.  For the 2011 tests in the Arizona desert, R2 was paired with a four-wheel base, thus creating Centaur 2.

The NASA staff were accommodating and friendly.  And while I don’t always enjoy field demonstrations, this one was extremely pleasurable and informative.

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