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Colonizing Mars with robots may sound like the stuff of science fiction. But believe it or not, three Massachusetts universities are trying to make that a reality.

A special delivery arrived at UMass Lowell this week from the Johnson Space Center. After a national contest, NASA chose a joint team from UMass Lowell and Northeastern to get this package.  Inside was a $2 million humanoid robot named Valkyrie (but they call her Val). She’s one of the most advanced in the world.

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“It’s awesome,” said University of Massachusetts, Lowell project head Holly Yanco. “I’ve been restraining myself from hugging the robot in front of everyone else in the group. But really I’m so excited that she’s here. We’ve been really anxiously awaiting her arrival.”

Like any shiny new toy, she requires some assembly. A team of engineers attached Val’s arms and legs, and tested to make sure everything was working.

“She’s a six-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoid robot that’s really meant to look like an astronaut,” said Yanco.  “She’s hopefully one day going to go to Mars. Not this actual robot but a robot just like her will go to Mars and help set up a habitat for people before the astronauts get there.”

NASA is hoping to send a manned mission to Mars some time in the 2030s. And Kris Verdeyen of NASA says Val could play a critical role in keeping things working until they get there.

“So perhaps mission control Houston gets an error light on their console,” said Verdeyen. “’Hey, there’s something wrong with the solar panel.’ The robot walks over to the panel and, points the cameras at it. ‘Oh, the solar panel’s covered with dust.’ So then we go back to the tool kit and just brush the thing off.”

But the robot isn’t actually able to do all that yet. And that’s where the programming skills of the Massachusetts universities come in.

The head of the Northeastern team, Taskin Padir, says Mars is so far away that the robots are going to have to figure some stuff out for themselves.

“It will take 20 minutes for a single comment to travel from Earth to Mars,” said Padir. “So the idea here is, we need to make these robots capable, more autonomous, not only at the decision making level but also at the task execution level so that they can be useful for those missions.”

There are only four of these robots in the world, and two of them are going to Massachusetts universities. MIT is getting theirs in a few weeks.

 “I think it shows that Massachusetts is a powerhouse in robotics,” said Yanco. “We actually have over 100 companies here in the state and there are over eight academic institutions doing robotics here in the state and there’s a lot of brainpower.”

And while this particular generation of Valkyrie won’t leave Earth, the work that’s being done here means her great granddaughter may some day be walking on the surface of the red planet.

(You can meet Valkyrie for yourself. UMass Lowell is hosting an open house at their robotics center on May 16.)