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Japan Plans to Send Robot into Space by 2013

Lonely astronauts on the International Space Station may soon be getting an android friend from Japan. Japan's space agency JAXA is considering putting a talking humanoid robot on the International Space Station to watch the mission while astronauts are asleep, monitor their health and stress levels and communicate to Earth through the microblogging site Twitter.

Currently the NASA’s robot named R-2 or Robonaut is scheduled to take off next week, and it shall be an assistant at the International Space Station.  NASA says it hopes that humanoid robots could one day stand in for astronauts during spacewalks or perform tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, the US$2.5 million NASA robot exists only from the waist up and is limited to activities within the lab.

The NASA project has human-like head, hands and arms and uses the same tools as station crew members. The "Robonaut" called R-2 — a shout-out to R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame — is intended to carry out maintenance tasks in the station's Destiny lab. More importantly, he said, the Japanese project is intended to build on the R-2 idea by providing a more communicative companion for the astronauts themselves.

Following up on NASA's "Robonaut" R-2 program, which is set for launch on the Discovery shuttle next week, the Japanese android would be part of a larger effort to create and refine robots that can be used by the elderly, JAXA said in a statement. JAXA is sending this humanoid robot to the space station in 2013 that could communicate with the ground through Twitter — primarily feeding photos, rather than original ideas — and provide astronauts with "comfort and companionship."

The robot was being developed with the advertising and communications giant Dentsu Inc. and a team at Tokyo University. "We are thinking in terms of a very human-like robot that would have facial expressions and be able to converse with the astronauts," said JAXA's Satoshi Sano.

Japan has no manned space program of its own, but its astronauts have been part of the space station crew and Japan also maintains a laboratory, called "Kibo," or Hope, on the station. The first Japanese astronaut to tweet from space was Soichi Noguchi, who returned to Earth in June last year after several months aboard the ISS.

Japan is one of the leading countries in robotics, and has a rapidly aging society with one of the world's longest life-expectancies. Improving robot communication capabilities could help the elderly on Earth by providing a nonintrusive means of monitoring the robot owner's health and vital signs and sending information to emergency responders if there is an abnormality, JAXA said.

The robot also uses Twitter, but generally just messages relayed from NASA spokespeople. Sano said the agency is considering ways to program the Japanese version to be more original.

JAXA hopes the robot's communications with Earth while there are no Japanese passengers on the space station will help maintain public interest and support in the mission.

Japan is putting in tremendous efforts in its technological sector, especially speaking in the field of robotics, as its Robonaut in space will tweet for the astronauts. And it does not halt here; the Japanese Space Agency is looking forward to place this humanoid robot into space, so that it could take care of the space mission while the crew is asleep.

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