Call it one giant leap for robot kind: A small talking robot launched into space aboard a Japanese cargo ship Saturday (Aug. 3) to keep astronauts company on the International Space Station.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the humanoid Kirobo "robot astronaut" into orbit from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan as part of nearly 3.5 tons of supplies and equipment to resupply the space station's six-person crew.
Kirobo was packed inside Japan's unmanned HTV-4 (Kounotori 4) cargo ship when it launched into orbit atop the country's H-2B rocket at 3:48 p.m. EDT (1948 GMT), though it was early Sunday morning (Aug. 4) Japan Standard Time at the time of liftoff. The HTV-4 spacecraft will arrive at the space station on Aug. 9. [See photos of Japan's nighttime HTV-4 space launch]
"The flight goes very smoothly," a JAXA launch controller said as the HTV-4 spacecraft entered orbit.
The Kirobo space robot is a diminutive mechanical person just 13 inches (34 centimeters) tall built to converse with astronauts on long space voyages. The robot, and its ground-based counterpart Mirata, are part of the Kibo Robot Project to study human-robot interaction technology. Kirobo speaks Japanese and is expected to talk to JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata when he arrives at the space station in November.
Kibo, which means "hope" in Japanese, is the name of Japan's research laboratory module aboard the International Space Station. The name of Kirobo is a merging of Kibo and robot, project officials have said.
Kirobo and Mirata were built by scientists and engineers at the by the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. Both robots come equipped with voice-recognition and face-recognition technology, as well as a camera, emotion recognition and natural language processing. The Toyota Motor Corp., Robo Garage and the public relations company Dentsu Inc. are partners in Kibo Robot Project.