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The Real R2D2: ASTRO Takes on Space Rogues

R2D2, the feisty, resourceful and intrepid droid that specialized in saving the day in the “Star Wars” films, has leaped from the big screen into real life. ASTRO, also rotund and ingenious, is the real deal and ready to play ball in today’s space race.

When ASTRO recently achieved a first-in-space-history moment 300 miles above Earth on March 8, 2007, he did so with the modest low profile we may associate with R2D2.

The Russians may have created a lot of hoopla when they accused the U.S. of covering up the testing of an anti-satellite weapon, but talk about a storm in a teacup. Of course the U.S. can shoot down satellites. What the Russians should be worried about is real cutting-edge U.S. technology like ASTRO.

ASTRO can undertake missions to tackle rogues in space. He can repair the spacecrafts protecting us against satellites hurtling down to earth with dangerous substances, and he can perform missions to reduce risk to our astronauts as well.

ASTRO (Autonomous Space Transport Robotic Operations) was designed and built by Boeing for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

Check out a sneak peak into how ASTRO was built.

And click below to see some exclusive footage from outer space of ASTRO in action, courtesy of DARPA and Boeing:

Video 1 | Video 2

As you can see from the photos, the lab looks very Austin Powers/Dr. Evil-esque. I’m looking forward to checking out the lab in person — in addition to bringing you the latest in Star Wars technology. I’ll report back if I find any sharks with laser beams on their heads.

R2’s bravery made him a lovable asset to the “force.” ASTRO is also an invaluable ally to our astronauts. Rather than risk an astronaut’s life, ASTRO can step up to the plate and perform work with highly advanced robotics.

The International Space Station, where astronauts are constantly adding and improving equipment in zero gravity, is in dire need of its own ASTRO. ASTRO, like R2, is jam-packed with all sorts of tool-tipped appendages that make him a great spacecraft mechanic and computer interface specialist. During his three weeks in space, ASTRO showed off his ability to undertake multiple missions. He can refuel spacecrafts in orbit and switch out components like batteries or computers.

If a spacecraft is in distress, gets lost or falls out of orbit, ASTRO can rescue it by using his little robotic arm to pull it back to where it is supposed to be. While satellites have mini-engines to push them back when they lose their way, a rescue by ASTRO would prevent them from having to burn the fuel to get back on track.

R2D2 acted as a little bodyguard, using his scanners to seek out any danger that might put his friends at risk. ASTRO is similarly equipped with onboard cameras and sensors so he can investigate any dangers that might pose a threat. He can also indulge in the trademark R2 curiosity, scoot around and use his equipment to examine enemy spacecraft or a spacecraft in trouble.

Mating and capturing, two racier activities outside of R2’s MO, are ASTRO’s forte. Achieving a historic first, ASTRO captured and mated to transfer fuel and components from one spacecraft to another this past summer. Right now, spacecraft get sent into space with a finite mission timeline, but with ASTRO’s ability to refuel, lives can now be extended.

We all know ASTRO as the Jetsons’ dog, but what you may not have known is that ASTRO now represents pioneering U.S. space technology. With this cutting-edge ability to assist and rescue friendly spacecraft, imagine what a powerful little guy ASTRO would be if he were forced into an offensive footing against enemy spacecraft.

Allison Barrie, a security and terrorism consultant with the Commission for National Security in the 21st Century, has an M.A. from the King's College War Studies department and has just completed her Ph.D thesis with King's.