History is full of famous handshakes that symbolize a permanent change in the status quo. The 1945 Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin triple handshake. The 1961 Kennedy-Khrushchev handshake. The 1972 Nixon-Mao handshake. The 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake. The 2012 Burbank-R2 handshake? This historic clasping took place on February 15, 2012, when NASA's Robonaut 2 (nicknamed R2) humanoid robot greeted Commander Dan Burbank aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in the first "man-machine" handshake in space.

NASA has been developing humanoid robots for use in space for some 15 years. The key design goal was to develop a robot which could assist astronauts with tasks that are either too dangerous for people or too routine to waste the time of a highly trained astronaut (the cost of having an astronaut in space is roughly US$25 per second.) It was decided that the most appropriate design for a robotic helper that can use the same tools as do the astronauts was humanoid.

Preceded by the Robonaut 1 technology demonstrator, Robonaut 2 (nicknamed R2) was revealed in 2010. R2 was originally intended to be another technology demonstrator. However, when it was shown to mission managers, it performed so well they decided R2 was ready for prime time, and was delivered to the ISS early in 2011.

R2 contains over 350 sensors and 38 PowerPC processors, producing operating speeds more than four times greater than Robonaut 1. The result is a faster, more dexterous robot that is far more capable of sensing and understanding its environment.

Controlled by telepresence either from the ISS or from a ground station, R2 can move its arms at 2 meters/second, lift 40 pounds on Earth, and each finger has a gripping strength of 5 pounds. R2's hand has 12 degrees of freedom together with 2 degrees of freedom in the wrist, as well as touch sensors in the fingertips.

The following video clearly show the flexibility and human-like motion of R2's hand and arm.

Robonaut 2 demonstrates its dexterity (NASA video)

R2 and its descendants will long accompany astronauts on their missions. Hopefully it won't be too long before it's commonplace for us here on Earth to have the help of friendly (well - handshaking, anyway) humanoid robots.

Here's NASA's video of the Burbank-R2 handshake:

Source: NASA