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India’s first human space mission, ‘Gaganyaan’ will take off during 2021-2022. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) unveiled a lady robot astronaut ‘Vyomamitra’ at a three-day symposium, January 22-24, 2020 in Bengaluru. The Vyomamitra was the highlight on the inaugural day of the symposium entitled ‘Human Spaceflight and Exploration – Present Challenges and Future Trends’. The half humanoid introduced herself to the audience, leaving them surprised! The name Vyomamitra, is derived from the Sanskrit words Vyoma (Space) and Mitra (Friend).
Before sending a man into space in its first human space flight- Gaganyaan, ISRO will send two unmanned missions to master all relevant technologies. The first unmanned mission will, however, have a ‘Vyomamitra’, a ‘lady’ half humanoid, being developed by the ISRO.
This article discusses the Vyomamitra, which is an important step towards the progress of ISRO’s ambitious first human space mission-Gaganyaan. The outlines of mission Gaganyaan, in brief, are also presented.
What is Gaganyaan?
Gaganyaan will be the first Indian crewed orbital spacecraft under the Human Space Flight program of ISRO. Gaganyaan is scheduled to be launched with powerful GSLV Mk III rocket by 2022 to commemorate the 75th year of India’s Independence. While addressing the nation on 15 August 2018 (India’s 72nd Independence Day) Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement that by 2022, a son or daughter of India with a tricolour in hand will be in the space.
Gaganyaan consists of a service module and a crew module, collectively known as the orbital capsule. The current plan is to have two unmanned and one manned flight under Gaganyaan Programme. The first uncrewed flight is planned in December 2020 and second in July 2021. Following two successful unmanned flights, the first crewed mission is scheduled in December 2021.
Spacecraft carrying people may be operated by the human crew, or remotely operated from ground stations or may be autonomous. The Gaganyaan is a largely autonomous spacecraft. The crewed spacecraft is intended to orbit the low Earth for 5-7 days and then bring back the crew module safely.
The main objective of the Gaganyaan mission is a technology demonstration. The other objectives of the mission are the enhancement of science and technology levels in the country. Gaganyaan is not only aimed to send a manned mission to space but will be a precursor to set up a space station to ensure the continuous human presence.
In fact, ISRO is looking at Gaganyaan for three purposes. The first short term plan is to show technology performance by sending two unmanned missions into space. This would be followed by the manned mission in December next year. The third mid-term goal is to strengthen the Indian human space program by setting up a new space station.
What is half-humanoid?
A humanoid is basically a robot with the appearance of a human being. ISRO’s Vyommitra is also being called a half-humanoid since she will only have a head, two hands, and a torso, and will not have lower limbs.
Like any robot, a humanoid’s functions are determined by the computer systems to which it is connected. With the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics, humanoids are being increasingly used for repetitive jobs, such as that of a waiter at a restaurant. The artificial intelligence technologies that power modern systems such as autonomous cars, or voice-operated systems such as Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Bixby, are extended in a humanoid to perform simple functions that include walking, moving things, communicating and obeying commands.
Why is ISRO developing a humanoid?
ISRO plans to send a human into space for the first time by 2022. It is racing against time to develop a crew module and rocket systems that will ensure the safe travel and return of the Indian astronaut. The Indian Astronauts will be addressed as ‘Vyomnauts’. Other countries that have successfully launched humans into space did so after having used animals for conducting tests of their rockets and crew recovery systems, while ISRO will ensure the efficacy of its GSLV Mk III rocket using humanoid to carry a human to space and return back. While ISRO will use the humanoid to test the efficacy of its GSLV Mk III rocket to transport a human to space and back. The humanoid is under development at a robotics laboratory at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthpuram.
ISRO’s GSLV Mk III rocket is currently undergoing improvisation to ensure that it is human-rated or, in other words, declared safe to transport a human being to space. Its first unmanned mission with the human-rated rocket is planned for December 2020. The crew module system is also under development, and ISRO will strive to carry out several new tests in the next few months.
ISRO has considerable experience in building robotic systems for its space projects. Artificial intelligence is at the core of many space missions. For example, the orientation, speeds, deployments of appendages, distances, etc are automatically assessed through processing / stored commands in spacecraft and launch vehicles. Once flown into space, ISRO’s half-humanoid will be able to test systems in the crew module meant for the survival and safe travel of the first Indian astronaut in 2022.
What are the tasks that Vyommitra will perform in space?
Vyomamitra robot will be used as an experiment. It would simulate most of the human body functions in space in the unmanned flight. Vyomamitra will interact, respond and report back as a human. It can also recognize astronauts, converse with them and respond to queries. This will be very useful to simulate as if a human is flying.
The Vyommitra humanoid, which will be tested at the ground for the human spaceflight, will be based on core artificial intelligence and robotics system. The activities that Vyommitra will be able to perform, once fully developed for the unmanned flight, will include procedures to use the equipment onboard the spacecraft’s crew module such as safety mechanisms and switches, as well as receiving and acting on commands sent from the ground stations. Attaining launch and orbital postures, monitoring through module parameters, responding to the environment, performing life support operations, generating warnings, replacing carbon dioxide canisters, switch panel operations, monitoring of the crew module, receiving voice commands, responding via speech (bilingual) are some of the functions listed for the humanoid.
Vyommitra, whose human-like face has already been on display, will have lip movement synchronized to mimic speech. She can also double up as an artificial buddy to an astronaut – providing audio inputs on aspects like the health of the spacecraft during the launch, landing and orbital phases of the manned mission.
Vyommitra will also report back to Earth on the changes occurring in the crew module during the spaceflight and return, such as heat radiation levels, to enable ISRO to understand the safety levels required in the crew module that will eventually fly a human being.
Have other space missions used humanoids?
There have been many space missions featuring dummy astronauts. There have also been some missions featuring humanoid robots like Vyommitra. The most recent mission with a dummy astronaut was in March 2019, when a mannequin called Ripley was flown on the Dragon crew capsule, launched on a SpaceX Falcon rocket, and sent to the International Space Station. Ripley was fitted with sensors to measure forces that act during a space flight as part of SpaceX preparations to send a human into space in 2020 for NASA.
An artificial intelligence robot ball called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) was deployed on the ISS by Airbus. Int-ball, a floating camera robot, was deployed on the ISS by JAXA space agency.
Kirobo, a humanoid robot built in Japan, was flown to the ISS along with the first Japanese commander of the ISS, Mr. Koichi Wakata, to serve as the astronaut’s assistant in conducting experiments on the space station. Kirobo was equipped with technologies such as speech recognition, facial recognition, language processing, and telecommunication capabilities.
A Russian humanoid robot, Fedor, was sent to the International Space Station in 2019 to carry out mechanical functions.
ISRO has demonstrated the prototype of the half-humanoid, Vyommitra at a three-day symposium, titled ‘Human Spaceflight and Exploration – Present Challenges and Future Trends’ in Bengaluru during January 22-24, 2020. The humanoid is being developed at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthpuram. Once fully developed and tested at the ground, her ability to have seamless interactions with astronauts and ground operations with the help of voice command will be an added step towards the progress of ISRO’s human space mission. Vyommitra will eventually fly to space on an unmanned mission later this year, aiming to lay the ground for ISRO’s manned mission Gaganyaan in 2022.