Koichi Wakata will have a humanoid pal to keep him company in space.
You know the only thing lonelier than Sgt. Pepper's Hearts Club Band, and the Heartbreak Hotel, and the number one? Being alone and also not on Earth. Space, for all its wonder, for all its provocations, for all its adventure, is an isolating place -- which is why behavioral screening is part of the astronaut selection process, and also why some the most intriguing scientific experiments being conducted aboard the ISS are psychological in scope.
For Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, though, space-borne loneliness may be assuaged by a different kind of experiment. A team of researchers at Tokyo University -- along with the robot creator Tomotaka Takahashi and the ad agency Dentsu -- have been since 2011 spearheading a project to give Wakata some companionship during his upcoming stint on the International Space Station. That project? A small humanoid robot that will be sent to live with Wakata on the orbiting laboratory. The android will be 13.4 inches tall and 2.2 pounds. It will arrive at the ISS next summer, a few months ahead of Wakata's own arrival. Its name is still to be determined -- by a public contest -- but it will look, per a sketch released yesterday, something like this:
Spacey! Yet for all the anime-ed cheekiness of the android's design, it was built to fulfill a fairly important purpose: to reduce the stress that astronauts naturally encounter as they're orbiting the Earth. "The robot would provide stress-relieving facial expressions and words (to the astronauts)," a representative from JAXA, Japan's space agency, told the Wall Street Journal when the project was announced last year. And it would do that in part by scanning astronauts' faces to detect any signs of stress, and -- slightly more creepily -- by taking pictures of them.