If one thing has been learned in the last half century, it's that sending astronauts into the harsh, unforgiving environment of space is both dangerous and expensive. To find a way to minimize risk and cost, NASA is sending a pair of prototype humanoid robots back to school. The space agency is giving two R5 "Valkyrie" robots to university groups at MIT and Northeastern University for advanced research and development of robotic astronauts that could act as vanguards for manned missions or as assistants for humans traveling to Mars.

NASA selected the two universities from a competition between university groups that participated in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). The winners are the Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments program at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and the Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge at Northeastern University in Boston. Each will receive one of the R5 robots.

Standing 6 ft (1.9 m) high and weighing 290 lb (125 kg), the formidable-looking humanoid R5 was built by NASA's Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas and Texas A&M. It has an onboard power pack, a suite of sensors and cameras, and detachable limbs. It was originally designed for earthbound disaster relief work and participated in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge, where it did much more poorly than expected – coming in at the bottom of the field. Now it's going back to its ultimate goal of helping to develop robotic astronauts.

In addition to the robots, each group will receive up to US$250,000 a year for two years from the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), which is dedicated to fast-tracking space technologies. In addition, the groups will have onsite and virtual technical support from NASA.

The robots will be part of the NASA's upcoming Space Robotics Challenge. Divided into a virtual competition for robotic simulations and a physical competitions for the two upgraded R5 robots, its aim is to create better software to produce more dexterous and autonomous humanoid space robots.

"Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars," says STMD associate administrator Steve Jurczyk. "We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development."

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