SpaceX is Sending an AI Robot ‘Crew Member’ to Join The Astronauts on the Space Station

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SpaceX will launch its 15th cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA, sending up nearly 3 tonnes of supplies on top of its Falcon 9 rocket. On board, the vehicle are shipments of food and water for the six astronauts living on the International Space Station, as well as new science experiments and technologies to be tested out in microgravity. Oh, and also a floating AI robot “crew member” to live on the station.

The robot’s full name is Crew Interactive Mobile Companion: CIMON. It looks like one of those spherical pool speakers or like a volleyball with a computer screen on one side. The screen displays a simplified cartoon face that the bot will use to interact with the humans on the ISS. CIMON is equipped with 14 internal fans that propel the white ball, by sucking in the station’s air and expelling it to move in whatever direction it needs.

Cimon is a joint project between the European aero company Airbus and IBM, funded by the German space agency DLR. And its developers hope astronauts will kind of enjoy working with the bot, that having a task-buddy will de-stress them. German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who arrived at the orbiting lab a month ago, will introduce Cimon to space life during three one-hour sessions. So the bot’s microphones and cameras are specially tuned to recognize his voice and face.

Cimon doesn’t have a body, but it has cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, and a speaker for a mouth. Using fans as fins, and ultrasonic sensors for proprioception, it is free to move about the microgravity cabin. To give Cimon its smarts and social skills, Airbus turned to IBM and its Watson AI, which has been used for automated banking, personalized in-car ads, and health care.

Along with CIMON, SpaceX is also sending up an instrument that will be attached to the outside of the ISS to measure the temperatures of plants on Earth. These measurements can tell scientists how stressed out our planet’s ecosystems are and if the world’s plants are receiving enough water. SpaceX is employing a used Falcon 9 rocket for this mission, as well as a used Dragon cargo capsule to carry all of the supplies to the ISS.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is scheduled to take off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:42AM ET on Friday.