Private space transport service provider SpaceX has cancelled the launch of its cargo vehicle to the ISS on Monday due to a helium leak discovered one hour before the scheduled lift-off.
The company is expected to aim for a new launch opportunity on Friday, if the problems with the leaking upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket are resolved.
In addition to usual items such as food and clothes, the cargo run, having already been postponed several times, is about to deliver some rather unique equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).
Already stowed inside the Dragon cargo vehicle, launched atop Falcon 9, are legs for Robonaut 2 – a highly dexterous, state-of-the-art humanoid robot developed together by NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, General Motors and Oceaneering.
Integrating Robonaut’s torso and the legs will finally enable the robotic crew member to fully take up its duty, helping the crew with simple repetitive tasks so that the astronauts can spend more time focusing on research. The robot is designed to be able to operate inside as well as outside the space station.
Once the legs are attached to the R2 torso, the robot will have a fully extended leg span of nine feet, giving it great flexibility for movement around the space station.
Each leg has seven joints and a device on what would be the foot, called an end effector allowing the robot to grasp objects, and use handrails and sockets inside and outside the station. A vision system for the end effectors also will be used to verify and eventually automate each limb's approach and grasp.
The legless R2, currently attached to a support post, is undergoing experimental trials with astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory. Since its arrival at the station in February 2011, R2 has performed a series of tasks including communication using sign language, operating an air-flow meter and a radio frequency identification inventory scanner.
The current SpaceX cargo run, part of the company’s $1.6bn (£1bn) contract with Nasa, has already been postponed several times due to various technical issues. The Monday attempt was approved despite a malfunction of one of the station’s key control computers. Nasa managers have scheduled a spacewalk for the end of April to replace a unit responsible for the computer failure which is attached to the station's external framework.
During the upcoming launch, SpaceX wants to test innovative technology which could eventually enable rocket stages landing softly after each use, enabling reuse of rocket engines. SpaceX hopes such a development would revolutionise the cost of space transportation.