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NASA Robonaut to finally get its space legs, aid astronauts

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- 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 2.4-meter Robonaut will be able to climb throughout the 420-kilometer-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 is due to arrive Easter Sunday morning.

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

“Legs are on the way!” read a message Friday on its Twitter account.

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

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

Each leg — 142 centimeters long — has seven joints. Instead of feet, there are grippers, each with a light, camera and sensor for building 3D 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 US$6 million to develop and another US$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 US$2.5 million, not counting the untold millions of dollars spent on development and testing.

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

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