Humans might not be the first beings to reach deep space after all — instead, it might be robots.

In an effort to accomplish some of the major goals the space agency outlined last year — including designing a new exploration system, seeking proposals for deep space journeying and kickstarting initiatives to send astronauts to Mars by 2030 — NASA scientists and engineers are turning to humanoid robots as a way to test out conditions for space travel, serving as a sort of litmus test, and in effect paving the way for their human counterparts.

"NASA is counting on robots to setup and care for deep space exploration facilities and equipment pre-deployed ahead of astronauts," said NASA's Langley Research Center scientist Sasha Congiu Ellis in an interview with "Robots are also excellent precursors for conducting science missions ahead of human exploration."

Named R5, the 290-pound, six-foot robot — or rather, two robots — currently in development were first used "to complete disaster-relief maneuvers." After being granted to MIT and Northeastern University to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Robotics Challenge (DRC) by NASA, each robot was (and is) set to be fitted out with more space survival-oriented features and programming, all with the help of a $250,000 yearly grant from the U.S. space agency.

According to Northeastern's principal investigator of Athena, Taskin Padir, the university is aiming to outfit its R5 with significant improvements in grasping objects of unknown origin, motion control and human-robot interfacing and interaction — all of which will improve the chance of a successful deep space venture.

"Extreme space environments are dangerous for humans. And, robots are ideal for dangerous tasks. NASA already has rovers on Mars. This is an effort to advance autonomy of humanoid robots," Padir told Spaceflight Insider. "We will have a better understanding of when and how humanoid robots will help with future deep space exploration missions as we continue our research and development in this field."


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