SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off today from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending an AI-enabled, sphere-shaped robot companion to keep the International Space Station’s crew company.
Launch came at at 5:41 a.m. ET (2:41 a.m. PT) after a trouble-free countdown.
The European CIMON robot, complete with a video-screen smiley face, is packed aboard an uncrewed Dragon capsule along with nearly three tons of additional experiments and supplies for the space station.
The Falcon 9’s first-stage booster and the Dragon have both been previously flown — but today SpaceX made no attempt to recover the booster for a second time, primarily because the model has been rendered obsolete. Instead, the first stage fell into the Atlantic while the second stage pushed the Dragon onward to orbit.
The cargo capsule is due to rendezvous with the space station on Monday.
Other experimental robotic assistants have been previously sent to the station, including free-flying spheres as well as Robonaut 2, an android that was equipped with maneuverable arms and legs. But CIMON is the first bot built to converse with human crew members, thanks to IBM’s Watson artificial-intelligence technology.
The robot’s name, pronounced like “Simon,” is an acronym of sorts that stands for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion.
CIMON is meant to blaze a trail for future free-flying machines that could provide a word of advice and a friendly face for astronauts working in space.
“Studies show that demanding tasks are less stressful if they’re done in cooperation with a colleague,” IBM team leader Matthias Biniok said in a pre-launch blog post.
During a series of experiments, CIMON will help German astronaut Alexander Gerst conduct crystal experiments, solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle based on videos, and serve as an intelligent flying camera for medical experiments.
CIMON’s facial recognition system is programmed to recognize Gerst (but not the other five spacefliers on the station, at least for now). The voice-enabled spaceball can read off checklists for a given procedure, or make small talk on the fly.
Here’s a sample of CIMON’s humor: “I’m R2-D2 … just kidding!”
The robot head is equipped with a power-off button — just in case the space station’s crew gets sick of its jokes, or it shows any signs of turning into the villainous HAL computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
For more about the Dragon’s science payloads, check out this report from NASA.