On August 3, along with 3.5 tons of supplies and equipment, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched a small humanoid robot on its unmanned H-2 Transfer Vehicle, which is destined for the International Space Station. Named 'Kirobo,' the robot is the brainchild of designer Tomotaka Takahashi of the University of Tokyo, the advertising agency Dentsu, and car manufacturer Toyota Motor Corp. The name, 'Kirobo,' is a combination of 'kibo,' which is the Japanese word for 'hope,' and robot, and was the number one pick from nearly 2,452 entries sent by 1,226 fans into a naming contest sponsored by the Kibo Robot project.

"Russia was the first to go outer space, the U.S. was the first to go to the moon, we want Japan to be the first to send a robot-astronaut to space that can communicate with humans," said Yorichika Nishijima, the Kirobo project manager, reported the Associated Press.

"One small step for me, a giant leap for robots," Kirobo told reporters before the launch.

The 13.5 inch robot — a little taller than a standard ruler — will reach the International Space Station (ISS) within six days and stay for nearly a year and a half. It will make its first announcement from space in late August or September.

International Project

JAXA announced that its launch as well as the separation of the cargo vehicle, carrying Kirobo to the ISS, was successful. The reason for the mission is to resupply the six-person crew of the International Space Station and also to collect waste. Space.com reports that not only Japan, but also Russia, the European Space Agency, and NASA make periodic deliveries to the station. This is the fourth mission for JAXA's H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which the Japanese refer to as 'kounotori' translated as 'white stork,' since 2009. After providing its supplies and equipment, the cylindrical spacecraft will be discarded as usual at mission's end. Considering all of the international delivery missions are based on automated spacecraft and robotic cargo delivery, the thought of launching a humanoid robot is really not so far-fetched. According to its creators, part of the overall mission of this humanoid robot astronaut is to help solve the problems that arise here on earth because society "has become more individualized and less communicative."

"I want to help create a world where humans and robots can live together," Kirobo said in Japanese, its only language, reports Space.com.

Kirobo has already met and had a conversation with astronaut Koichi Wakata before its launch. Wakata, though, will not arrive at the space station until November or December, and it will be at that time that he and the robot will have their first "experimental discussion." Its creators say that Kirobo will naturally recognize Wakata's face, as the robot comes equipped with facial recognition technology, along with voice recognition and emotion recognition capabilities.


The project engineers who made Kirobo also developed a clone, so to speak, to help with potential problems. Mirata is an identical robot that will remain on Earth so that engineers will be able to troubleshoot any internal technical difficulties that may arise with Kirobo. Because there is almost no gravity on the International Space Station where the robot will stay, Kirobo was subjected to many — over a dozen — harsh tests before its launch. For instance, because the robot gestures with its hands while speaking, its creators needed to understand if such motions would cause the robot to spin in place in a 'low-gravity' environment.

"I wish for this robot to function as a mediator between person and machine, or person and the Internet, and sometimes even between people," said designer Takahashi as quoted in The Japan Times. The question on nearly everyone's mind: when will Kirobo be made commercially available?