NASA shuttle's returns is just the start for space robotics

Scientists say further moves into solar system will require a human/robot partnership

As the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor made the journey home after a 16-day mission, scientists at NASA and the Canadian Space Agency credit them with taking the first step in a robotic partnership that will help humans press further out into the solar system.

The Endeavour and its crew of seven astronauts have landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The crew set a record for running the longest mission of space station construction -- delivering a Japanese lab to the International Space Station and assembling a 1,500 kilo, 3.7 metre-tall robot.

"The work we're doing now -- the robotics we're doing -- is what we're going to need to do to build any work station or habitat structure on the moon or Mars," said Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA. "Yes, this is just the beginning."

Further joint human-robot projects will "be a symbiotic relationship. It's part of a long-term effort for us to branch out into the solar system. We're going to need this type of hand-in-robotic-hand [effort] to make this happen. We're in the infancy of space exploration. We have to start somewhere and this is as good a place as any."

The astronauts worked with a ground crew of engineers from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to get the US$200 million robot, named Dextre, assembled and operational. With two arms and a wing span of 9.1 metres, Dextre is designed to do maintenance on the outside of the space station, cutting down on the number of dangerous space walks the astronauts will have to perform. The robot was built by the Canadian agency.

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