A new Russian humanoid robot arrived at the International Space Station on August 26th. It was the only crew member of a Soyuz rocket that launched to orbit on August 22nd from Kazakhstan. The mission called for flying the Soyuz without a human crew in order to test new upgrades and software and to deliver this android to the ISS.
Getting to the station was a bit of an ordeal for the robot. The Soyuz spacecraft was originally supposed to dock with the ISS on August 24th, but the meet-up was aborted when the vehicle started moving unexpectedly as it approached the station. Russia’s state space corporation, Roscosmos, found that there was a problem with the port the Soyuz tried to dock with: one of the components on the station’s automatic docking system wasn’t working properly, and it mucked things up for the spacecraft.
Skybot on Earth.
The Soyuz trailed the ISS over the weekend, while the station’s crew did some last-minute maneuvering. On August 25th, three of the six crew members on the ISS loaded into one of the two Soyuz spacecraft already docked at the space station and moved it over to the glitching docking port. The crew manually docked themselves to the port just fine since the failing component only prevented automatic docking. This freed up another port with a fully working automatic docking system, allowing the uncrewed Soyuz to finally rendezvous with the space station on its own. Now, a total of three Soyuz spacecraft are docked with the ISS.
Roscosmos wanted to do this rare crewless Soyuz mission because the corporation is switching out the type of rocket that future crews will ride into space. Soon, crews bound for the ISS will ride on the new Soyuz-2.1a rocket, not the Soyuz-FG rocket that astronauts and cosmonauts have been riding on since 2002. Before any people fly on the new vehicle, Roscosmos decided to send the rocket on a flight to test a few upgrades to the capsule and see if certain software systems on both the spacecraft and rocket interfaced well.
Российский экипаж Международной космической станции увеличится 24 августа. К космонавтам Александру Скворцову и Алексею Овчинину присоединится робот #SkybotF850. Две недели космонавтам Роскосмоса предстоит тестировать его системы в условиях космического полёта pic.twitter.com/PGuCk9com5— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) August 23, 2019
Now, Russia’s robot crew member — named Skybot F850 — will be unloaded onto the space station. The bot, reminiscent of the early Terminator, is dexterous like a human and is even capable of performing complex tasks like driving cars and shooting guns. Skybot won’t be doing any of that on the ISS, thankfully. The cosmonauts on board the ISS will only spend two weeks with the bot, performing tests and evaluating its ability to perform certain tasks in space. It’ll then be loaded back into the Soyuz capsule it came on and return to Earth in early September.
Skybot is somewhat reminiscent of another humanoid spacefaring robot that NASA sent to the space station called Robonaut 2. Complete with an upper torso, arms, and a helmet, Robonaut 2 first flew to the station in 2011. A pair of legs was sent up for the robot in 2014. During its stay, the bot performed various administrative tasks on the station, but eventually, it stopped powering up properly and was returned to Earth in May 2018 for repairs. Robonaut 2 will return to the station not until long after Skybot departs. As great as it would be to have the humanoid astronauts meet, we’ll all just have to wait for a robot rendezvous in space.