NASA officials said this week that robots are an essential part of the space shuttle Endeavour's key mission to install two new pieces of the International Space Station.
Last Monday, the shuttle's six-person crew took off on a 13-day mission to deliver and install a new Italian-built node, along with a seven-window cupola that will serve as the central command post for the station's robotics work.
Scott Wenger, who heads NASA's robotic operations group, said robotics technology is a critical part of the astronauts' effort to build out the space station.
"It's essential to completing all of the mission's objectives," said Wenger, who is stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Robotics is going to play a very big role."
Right after the Endeavour's Feb. 8 launch, the onboard astronauts used a robotic arm to check the shuttle's exterior for any damage that might occur during liftoff.
Wenger said the astronauts turned to the robotic arm onboard the space station just hours after Endeavour docked with the space station yesterday.
The station's primary robotic arm, called Canadarm II, reached into the shuttle's cargo bay and lifted out a 50-foot boom with a camera attached at one end. Canadarm II then handed the boom off to the space shuttle's robotic arm, which will hold it while the shuttle is docked with the station.
The two cameras attached to the shuttle's arm, along with the camera on the end of the boom, will provide the astronauts inside the space station with a good view of the outside job.
Tonight, the station's robotic arm is slated to reach into the shuttle's payload bay and pull out the station's new node, which was temporarily attached to the cupola during its journey aloft. Wenger said Canadarm II will attach the node to the space station.
On Sunday, the robotic arm will separate the cupola from the new node and move the cupola to its own place on the space station.
"We couldn't get this work done without the robotic arms," said Wenger.
Separately, astronauts Nicholas Patrick and Robert Behnken tonight are slated to take the first of the mission's three planned spacewalks.
During the spacewalks, the astronauts will focus on installing a refurbished distillation assembly for the space station's water recovery system. They will also replace the water recovery system's fluids control pump assembly, according to NASA. The system processes urine into drinking water.
During the day today, both Behnken and Patrick are sleeping in the space station's airlock in preparation for tonight's spacewalk. NASA explained that they're sleeping in the reduced pressure of the airlock to avoid decompression sickness.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed .