Researchers will test and develop Valkyrie for future space missions. Researchers will test and develop Valkyrie for future space missions. Researchers will test and develop 'Valkyrie' for future space missions. (Photo: NASA)

Is NASA sending Iron Man up to Mars?

Quite possibly. But first, the space agency is sending the robot to college.

Sending a man to live on Mars may still be several years away, but NASA is hoping that a robot that looks a little like Iron Man can scout out the Red Planet before humans arrive.

The 6-foot-tall, 290-pound humanoid robot is called "Valkyrie." While NASA has spent a long time constructing it, they're looking to outside scientists to help fine-tune the robot's functionality. So they're sending two robots to school. One will be sent to MIT and the other to Northeastern University, where engineers will help develop the machine's dexterity and artificial intelligence for deep space missions.

In what's been described as a modern-day space race, NASA's continuing fascination with Mars is advancing at a rapid clip. In the past few months alone, they've unveiled a three-step plan for sending astronauts to Mars and have also developed ideas for how to colonize the planet. Some of those plans, including growing vegetables on Mars, mirror the techniques used by Matt Damon's character in this fall's blockbuster hit "The Martian."

In addition, the U.S. space agency has entered into a partnership with Israel, which will be assisting NASA on their Mars missions. Israeli space technology is known for being extremely light in weight. Indeed, a team of Israeli engineers is currently constructing a dishwasher-sized spacecraft that's headed straight for the moon. Also, Mars was a hot topic at a conference held in Israel in October with many of NASA's top scientists in attendance. Also on hand was legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who has become a leading champion for human colonization of Mars.

The robots that are being tested at MIT and Northeastern University are not only going to be used as precursors to human travel to Mars. The robots could also join astronauts on their missions and be used to take care of tasks outside the spaceship, where harsh conditions make it difficult for humans to work.

“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” NASA's Steve Jurczyk said in a statement. “We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development.”

Meanwhile, the ramp up to the next Mars mission is already underway. Due to weather conditions and the alignment of planets, the next window of opportunity for traveling to Mars is from January 2016 to April 2016. During that time, there will be two missions to the Red Planet.

But don't sit on the edge of your seat waiting for something exciting to happen. Just getting there will take up to nine months. A new report from MIT, the same university that will be testing the Valkyrie robot, has suggested using the moon as a virtual pit stop, to make the travel time more efficient.

Either way, all of these developments continue to show the positive direction science is moving in when it comes to interplanetary travel. To paraphrase what a wise man once said: It's one small step for a robot, and one giant leap for mankind.

NASA says this robot could assist astronauts on a deep space mission to Mars.NASA says this robot could assist astronauts on a deep space mission to Mars. (Photo: NASA)

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Is NASA sending Iron Man up to Mars?
Quite possibly. But first, the space agency is sending the robot to college.