A massive robot and Japan's first room in space are set for delivery to the international space station next week aboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour.
Canada's two-armed robot, named Dextre for its nimble capabilities, should give astronauts a break from basic repair and maintenance tasks outside of the growing space station. The Japanese Logistics Pressurized (JLP) Module marks the first of three components for that nation's massive Kibo science lab.
"This flight will be a monumental flight for Japan," said Tetsuro Yokoyama, operations project deputy manager for Kibo, during a press briefing at Johnson Space Center this week. "We are very close to a long-awaited moment."
The seven-astronaut STS-123 space shuttle crew, led by commander Dominic Gorie, is slated to launch at 2:28 a.m. EDT (0628 GMT) on March 11 aboard Endeavour. The crew aims to install Japan's new orbital room in a temporary position on March 14, then begin Dextre's assembly on March 15.
To fit the Canadian Space Agency's $274-million, 3,440-pound (1,560-kilogram) robot into Endeavour's payload bay, engineers crafted it into large chunks that spacewalking astronauts could assemble outside of the space station.
Once astronauts latch each piece in place and attach it to a mobile platform on the space station, Dextre will be able to do many standard tasks with an astronaut or earthbound operators at its controls.
"He's got huge arms, kind of got like a head up there and a lower torso," said astronaut Rick Linnehan, a mission specialist on the STS-123 mission, comparing it "Gigantor," a famous cartoon robot. "It allows us to ... increase the amount of robotics tasks we do up on station."
That's important, NASA officials have said, because spacewalking is risky business for astronauts. The new robot is also expected to give space station crewmembers more time to focus on science and other tasks, they added.
"It's sitting out there in the harsh environment of space all the time, basically ready to go," said Daniel Rey, manager for the Dextre project. "It doesn't require any pre-breathe protocol and it doesn't require any cleanup. It's an operational robot that's pushing the limits of what we can do in space today with robotics."
Each of Dextre's seven-jointed arms will possess a "hand" — an orbital replacement unit — backed by a sensor sensitive to less than 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) of force, or about the weight of a small water bottle. The device will use a suite of tools to replace burned-out components outside the space station, as well as assist spacewalkers with their duties.
Japan's JLP module will serve primarily as attic space for the three-part Kibo science laboratory when it's finished some time in 2009. Initially, however, the 9.2-ton cylindrical room will be used to ferry eight systems and science experiment racks to the space station.
"I feel it's a little bit small inside," said Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, noting that the module was slightly larger than a small walk-in closet. "As you know this is a module for storage purposes." Doi, an STS-123 mission specialist representing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), will deliver the new room to the space station using Endeavour's robotic arm.
The module, to be followed by a "back porch" exposed to space and a school bus-sized science lab, is part of Japan's 680 billion yen ($6.6 billion) space station science initiative, JAXA officials have said.
Aside from Dextre and Japan's module, Endeavour will carry experiments to Europe's Columbus laboratory module, as well as a testbed to demonstrate a repair method to fix chinked heat-resistant tiles on a shuttle's heat shield. NASA is also sending up RIGEX — short for Rigidizable Inflatable Get-Away-Special Experiment — that is a small, automated experiment designed to test making inflatable structures in orbit.
Gorie and his crew's anticipated 16-day journey in space will be the longest ever attempted for a space station assembly mission to date.