Crew members on board the International Space Station will have a new friend. The first floating robot with artificial intelligence in space.

Early this morning (June 29), NASA launched the AI-powered bot aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule on a two-day trip to the International Space Station. The private space agency launched their recycled Falon 9 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket carried around 6,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS.

The AI-powered machine called CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) will help astronauts complete tasks aboard ISS.

CIMON is roughly the size of a volleyball and weighs 5 kilograms. The AI bot will float through the zero-gravity environment of the space station thanks to a system of fans. Its 12 internal fans will allow the bot to move in all directions as it floats in microgravity.

“Having AI — having that knowledge base and the ability to tap into it in a way that’s useful for the task that you’re doing — is really critical for having humans further and further away from the planet,” Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) program manager, said during a pre-launch news conference yesterday (June 28).

The point of this pilot project is to see if an AI bot can improve crew efficiency and morale during longer missions, including a possible mission to Mars.

“An observational pilot study with the [CIMON] aims to provide first insights into the effects of crew support from an artificial intelligence in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space,” NASA said in a statement Friday after the successful launch.

The European aerospace company Airbus developed CIMON on behalf of the German space agency (DLR). The robot’s AI is IBM’s famous Watson system. The AI machine cost less than $6 million to build, and less than two years to develop.

What is CIMON capable of?

CIMON can display repair instructions on its screen, and even search for objects in the ISS. The machine can move freely. It can accelerate toward any astronaut calling its name and even nod to show understanding of a command and shake its head back-and-forth in disapproval. It will respond to commands in English.

The robot is flexible enough to interact with anyone. However, its mission calls for the bot to work with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst on three separate investigations. Gerst arrived at the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft earlier this month.

“They will experiment with crystals, work together to solve the Rubik’s cube and perform a complex medical experiment using CIMON as an ‘intelligent’ flying camera,” Airbus representatives wrote in a mission description earlier this year.

“Alexander Gerst could say something like, ‘CIMON, could you please help me perform a certain experiment? Could you please help me with the procedure?'” Philipp Schulien, a CIMON system engineer at Airbus, said during a different news conference yesterday. “And then CIMON will fly towards Alexander Gerst, and they will already start the communication.”

However, CIMON will only stay in space for a few months. The AI-powered robot is scheduled to return to earth in December so scientists can study and assess its abilities.

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Thumbnail image: A rendering of what CIMON will look like on the ISS. Image: DLR