Russia sent a humanoid robot as its first passenger on its new Soyuz booster

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency sent a life-size humanoid robot on a mission to the International Space Station as part of a test flight to check the compatibility of the upgraded booster and spacecraft.

The mission was carried by an improved Soyuz capsule — which is typically a crewed flight to the space station — and only lifted off with food, supplies, and a humanoid Skybot F-850 robot from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan early Thursday at 8:38 a.m. local time.

Its Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft is carrying 1,450 lbs. (660 kilograms) of supplies for the station’s six-person crew.

Particularly, the revamped rocket is called the Soyuz-2.1a, a Russian booster that is intended for crewed flights. So far, it has only performed an uncrewed space delivery. The new booster rocket is expected to replace the Soyuz-FG rocket next year.

“A flawless climb to orbit for Soyuz MS-14 in its test flight, the first launch of a Soyuz vehicle on a 2.1a booster,” NASA spokesperson Rob Navias said during live launch commentary. 

According to Navias, this Soyuz launch is a critical test to determine the compatibility of the combination of the Soyuz capsule and the Soyuz 2.1a booster. This launch will help Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to determine if it will be ready for its crewed flight tentatively scheduled in March 2020.

“The Soyuz 2.1a booster, equipped with a new digital flight control system and upgraded engines, is replacing the Soyuz FG booster that has been used for decades to launch crews into space,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. “The Soyuz spacecraft will have upgraded motion control and navigation system, as well as a revamped descent control system,” they added.

Along with the upgraded sensors attached to the spacecraft, Roscosmos also included a Skybot F-850 robot named “Fyodor” to act as its first passenger to the ISS.

Fyodor is one of the latest versions of Russia’s FEDOR robots, a five-year-old versatile line of humanoids, which have been used in real-life scenarios on Earth. As the first of its kind in space, the Fyodor Skybot F-850 includes unique features such as vibration-resistant materials, and algorithms to reduce its movement so that it does not accidentally damage the International Space Station.

On Wednesday, Fyodor has taken the captain’s seat on the Soyuz 2.1 test flight to the ISS, where the spacecraft is expected to dock on Saturday.

“He made it to orbit and is en route to the International Space Station,” Navias said.

A television view from inside the Soyuz showed the robot clutching a small Russian flag in its right hand as a toy cosmonaut bobbed around the cabin as a zero-gravity indicator. 

“Fyodor,” a Russian robot officially designated Skybot F-850, sits in the commander’s seat of the Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft after successfully reaching orbit on Aug. 22, 2019. A Russian flag is clutched in its right hand.

If all goes well, Soyuz MS-14 will arrive at the International Space Station early Saturday (Aug. 24)

During its 17-day space mission, Fyodor will take part in “about five or six scientific tasks,” Yevgeny Dudorov, the executive director of the robot’s manufacturer Android Technology, noted earlier, stressing that “those scientific tasks have been kept secret.”

The robot will then be packed back aboard the Soyuz for a return trip to Earth on Sept. 6.

What’s not kept a secret, however, is that the robot will be able to report conditions such as the forces it encountered during flight, including the point at which it begins to feel microgravity.

Furthermore, the mission will also help Roscosmos to develop necessary changes to the Soyuz spacecraft, which can potentially pave the way for a cargo ship that can perform uncrewed reentry to return experiments and other gear to Earth. Currently, Russia’s capsule can only deliver supplies and are filled with trash, which is discarded at the end of their missions.

In general, the data collected by both the spacecraft and Fyodor will able to tell a basic outcome of the crewed flight in 2020 or make any necessary changes before then.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX made the same robot-gauging experiment on its first uncrewed test flight of Crew Dragon in March. Like, Fyodor, the flight included an anthropomorphic test dummy (ATD) onboard. The dummy is attached with sensors to measure the gravitational loads that will be placed on the crew as well as the environment around them.

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