Robotics: Pushing the Envelope

by Paul Gilster on September 5, 2012

“My increasingly sophisticated laptops are starting to develop personalities of their own,” says Charles Lineweaver (Australian National University), as interviewed by Peter Spinks in The Age. It’s a whimsical remark in the context of a discussion on robotics in space missions, but I think many of us can relate to it. We all tend to anthropomorphize at the drop of a hat, reading motives and reactions into the routine habits of our pets that may say more about us than about them. Maybe making things seem human is an essential part of what being human is.

It’s worth thinking about all this given the successes as well as the limitations of robotic technologies. I’m all in favor of both robotics and a robust manned program, but right now deep space is a machine’s game, and budget realities tell me it will remain so for the foreseeable future. That being the case, and again, with our tendency to anthropomorphize our machinery, there was a certain frisson associated with Curiosity’s breathtaking arrival on Mars. Controllers could only watch, given the distances involved, as sophisticated machinery put its survival on the line, and the joy at JPL after touchdown pegged Curiosity as, in its own way, one of us.

Image: Curiosity’s view of the base of Mt. Sharp. How long will it be before human crews work in this kind of environment? Credit: NASA/JPL.

Because both humans and robot craft have a place in space exploration, working out which does what best is important when the target is a relatively close Mars. On that score, the strengths of Curiosity and future robotic explorers are clear enough. It’s hard to call a $2.5 billion rover expendable unless you’ve first gotten every bit of data return you can from it, but we can still take chances with rovers we wouldn’t dare run with humans, and there’s no built-in return imperative either. The lack of life support allows us to maximize payload, and even a hostile environment like Mars has proven surprisingly workable for several generations of rovers.

Even so, Spinks’ article quotes Jon Clarke (Geoscience Australia) on why humans are very much in the game:

“Unmanned spacecraft and planetary rovers are very useful, and are superior to direct human presence for several tasks, such as for orbital imagery or acting as ground stations,” Dr Clarke explains. “But as the complexity of a mission increases, the difficulty of achieving it with an unmanned system goes up exponentially.”

Scientific exploration of planetary surfaces is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable, he says. “While specific tasks can be automated, the integrated replacement of the entire human being is very difficult, and perhaps impossible.”

I’ve written before about Ian Crawford’s views on robotics. Crawford (Birkbeck College, London) points to the decision-making capabilities of human beings on the surface of the Moon, where we explored six different sites and returned 382 kilograms of lunar material. Yes, we can envision a Mars sample-return mission, or similar returns from exotic places like Enceladus, but the sheer diversity of the Apollo samples is impossible to top robotically, at least at today’s level of development. Over 2000 lunar locations were sampled in the course of Apollo’s work.

In a recent paper on the subject, Crawford points to the robotic sample return missions and contrasts them with Apollo in terms of scientific papers generated:

…a large part of the reason why Apollo has resulted in many more publications than the Luna missions is due to the much larger quantity and diversity of the returned samples which, as we have seen, will always be greater in the context of human missions. The third point to note is that, despite being based on data obtained and samples collected over 40 years ago, and unlike the Luna, Lunokhod, or Surveyor publications, which have clearly levelled off, the Apollo publication rate is still rising. Indeed, it is actually rising as fast as, or faster than, the publications rate derived from the Mars Exploration Rovers, despite the fact that data derived from the latter are much more recent. No matter how far one extrapolates into the future, it is clear that the volume of scientific activity generated by the MERs, or other robotic exploration missions, will never approach that due to Apollo.

All this from a total of only 12.5 days on the lunar surface (and that figure includes down-time in the Lunar Module — the cumulative EVA time was a fleeting 3.4 days). Even Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the wildly successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers, is on record as saying “The unfortunate truth is that most things our rovers can do in a perfect sol [Martian day] a human explorer could do in less than a minute.” A human future in space seems inevitable for maximum science return, but clearly the machines go first.

Whether the humans follow at all may be a function of distance. While I feel sanguine about getting human crews to many Solar System targets eventually, it’s a real question whether moving beyond the Solar System will ever involve biological beings, an issue we looked at yesterday in the context of David Brin’s novel Existence. I’m convinced that robotic missions with sophisticated artificial intelligence will someday be launched to nearby stars, and we can hope that the kinds of advances we’ve seen in computing in our lifetimes will continue into generations of extraordinarily capable robot craft that can mimic human capabilities.

That’s asking a lot of robotics, but we get better at this with every successful mission. The problem of biology, though, ramps up the harder we choose to push it. Putting humans into deep space inevitably invokes the problem of self-contained habitats, about which we have so much to learn that even a manned flight to nearby Mars challenges our capabilities. While we work out these issues, robotic exploration proceeds without need of biological life support and capable of ever more sophisticated operations. There is no winner or loser in this game, for we can create the tools to send us data about environments to which we can’t yet travel, all the while developing the technologies that could make a sustainable human presence in space a reality.

Ian Crawford’s paper is “Dispelling the myth of robotic efficiency: why human space exploration will tell us more about the Solar System than will robotic exploration alone,” Astronomy and Geophysics Vol. 53 (2012), pp. 2.22-2.26 (abstract).

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Alex Tolley September 5, 2012 at 11:04

Crawford’s paper makes a very compelling case for direct human exploration. I had assumed that telec-robots would be a good compromise for Mars, e.g. humans stay in orbit or base themselves in Phobos/Deimos and control the robots on the surface. The deep ocean ROV model for Mars. But apparently that is not very efficient. His tabulation of the relative advantages of humans vs robots gives very few wins for robots, and those are really just for instrumentation, rather than robots.

If his figures are correct, then in terms of quantity of scientific output, human exploration of the moon was much more effective than robots. Although comparing apples to oranges, the cost of Apollo was not greatly worse than robots per scientific output, although much of this was apparently the ability to return lots of lunar samples.

Rightly or wrongly, my sense is that the extraordinarily slow process in detecting or excluding life on Mars could have been answered fairly quickly by an onsite biologist with relatively little equipment. Selecting samples for return to earth for more specialist analysis would be ideal.

So assuming that the private space entrepreneurs could deliver a person to Mars orbit in decades, what exactly would it take to deliver them to the surface for an extended stay? And if they were not to return, what would it take to keep them alive for a very extended stay?

Paul Titze September 5, 2012 at 11:08

Bottom line is there’s no cash to send humans on long distance trips or even to the Moon with today’s economy and propulsion technology. There’s just enough cash to send small robots around and get a reasonable scientific return. Robots can dig, kick rocks around, take photos, sample specimens, return data for analysis etc in a cost effective manner. Until we are able to replace chemical rockets with a cheaper alternative option robots are the best option. I was impressed at Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars, was a complicated landing!

Paul.

JohnHunt September 5, 2012 at 12:29

The comparisons between what humans can accomplish and what rovers can accomplish are usually not fairly done. The biggest difference are the relative prices between them. On Mars, a manned mission would cost something like 300 times what another Spirit or Opportunity would cost and with less risk. So, what could 300 Opportunities accomplish compared to one manned mission? That would be a more fair comparison. 300 different locations spaced an average of about 200 miles apart would yield a remarkably diverse set of scientific findings. But would it even be possible for a single manned mission to travel to all of those locations and could it do so safely – e.g. without their vehicle breaking down along the way?

Another common oversight is to fail to think about the efficiency of simultaneous telerobotic investigations. The 300 telerobotic rovers could operate largely simultaneously. So, although they operate more slowly due to the speed of light lag time, they would each complete their mission in five years or so. So, all of the 300 locations would be analyzed by the end of the five years. But, due to the expense of a manned mission, likely, it would take decades to accomplish the same amount of manned geologic missions sequentially.

Sending people to Phobos for real-time telerobotic exploration doesn’t get around any problems. That would be dreadfully expensive and risky. The ratio between humans to robots would be about 1:1 (while the astronaut is awake). Again, slow but simultaneous telerobotic exploration is the most cost-effective.

Another common oversight is forgetting that telerobots have the brains of humans. They don’t need to be programmed to be as smart as a geologist but simply link to a smart geologist back home. Relatedly, sometimes people say that only real people on the ground can correctly interpret the context. I don’t understand that at all. Robots can have microscopic and telescopic vision of higher resolution than humans. They can also see in different frequencies than humans. With lasers, they can even sample at distance without having to drive there.

Finally, emphasizing an unjustifiable science rationale for a manned space program detracts from the real reason for doing so — human settlement. And that is the one thing that robots cannot do but we need to do.

James Jason Wentworth September 5, 2012 at 13:12

Imagine the scientific output of a joint human/robotic mission to Mars! Human explorers on the surface could, using relay satellites (or from landing sites on Phobos or Deimos) drive robotic Mars rovers in real time, making observations and bringing interesting samples back to a lander with an ascent stage. The rovers could go places where it would be dangerous for astronauts to drive in person, such as the slopes of the Martian volcanoes and Mariner Valley. Also:

Well before the Apollo Moon landings, Dr. Wernher von Braun sketched out how human explorers could gather much more information more quickly and cheaply than robot probes. In his 1960 book “First Men to the Moon,” he described how a two-man crew could set up a lunar seismographic network by launching a number of seismograph-equipped solid propellant rockets in various directions from the Moonship’s landing site. Afterward the crew would launch “Moonquake rockets” equipped with small explosive charges, whose known energy releases would permit accurate measurements of the Moon’s interior characteristics.

Greg September 5, 2012 at 14:22

It’s my belief that the driving factor for human space travel is that it deeply hits upon that which makes us human. I realize there is a growing divide for those who think robotic space exploration is more important than human space travel, but if we relegate to sitting back and watching the rest of the universe through our computer monitors and Television’s we will be missing out on something that makes us who we are.
I can only speak for myself but I would probably give up most anything to walk on another planet, to feel the rough unexplored ground under my feet and look up at a sky that humans have never known before, this to me is what makes us human, the desire to experience new places. Not just for scientific purposes but if anything to provide us growth in how we think of ourselves and our worldview. If we fail to put out efforts into human space travel we may be stunting our own evolutionary growth.

Michael September 5, 2012 at 14:37

It would be cheaper to have the explorers in orbit or on one of the moons (which would give very good shelter against radiation) controlling a number of robots on the ground, they can as James explains then can collect the samples for a return flight to earth. Just a thought could an explosive/impactor be used to impact Olympus mons to eject material in space for collection, the low gravity and very low gas pressure could allow it.

Enzo September 5, 2012 at 16:03

I agree with John Hunt : before trying to draw a comparison, one should compare the returns of a human mission with the returns of a robotic one that cost as much as the human one (i.e. hundreds of times more).

I’m still seething over the $%#$$ decision of selecting Insight over TitanMare. Almost as bad as SIM cancellation as NASA focus on Mars warps into obsession at the expense of the rest. This might seem a bit off topic, but it is subtly related to the fact that, when the budget is tight, NASA still sticks to the robotic missions as precursor to the human one to Mars as the latter is clearly more important to them then exploration itself.
In other words, Mars missions are so disproportionally funded because they are seen as precursors to a human mission.

ESA has a much more balanced approach to solar system exploration. They might not have NASA’s technical capabilities, but they more than make up for it with a vastly more scientific, varied, non Mars obsessed approach.

Wojciech September 5, 2012 at 16:25

I could see a shift from the current trend of sending larger robotic platforms to Mars towards sending “swarm” robots, programmed based on behavior of ants or other insects. Maybe with some central nodes responsible for communication and repairs.
Ultimately current rovers and probes are badly suited for what we will really need to find life on Mars-exploration of its caves and subsurface.
I am thinking of robots like these
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lCUGPixEnk
(heh I just noticed people commenting on this video that we need robots like these o Mars)

Ole Burde September 5, 2012 at 16:49

One of the most often used reasons to Robots instead of humans , is that robots are more ”expendable” . This is only true in a world dominated by media-driven politics . From rational point of view , a human is at least as expendable as a billion $ robot , and capable of self-replication using recycled materials . And THIS specifik system for self-replicattion is a prooven one , which does not contain the possiblity of unknowable future disasters .

amphiox September 5, 2012 at 19:22

This is only true in a world dominated by media-driven politics . From rational point of view , a human is at least as expendable as a billion $ robot , and capable of self-replication using recycled materials . And THIS specifik system for self-replicattion is a prooven one , which does not contain the possiblity of unknowable future disasters .

But this self-replication process takes at least 20 years, and in the case of a Mars astronaut, probably 30-40.

Ole Burde September 6, 2012 at 1:00

In the case of Mars it wont be necesary . The cheapest way to explore mars would be to send volunteers on a one-way ticket , prefarably individuals who have already done their bit in this world , and who would like ” to go out with a bang” …if we give up the stupid notion of humans living in zero gravity , and go for the cheapest possible rotating habitation module ( which could be a single habitation module rotating with a fuel tank as counterweight ) , no PHYSICAL heath limitations remains relevant .

James Jason Wentworth September 6, 2012 at 15:23

Ole Burde wrote:

[In the case of Mars it wont be necesary . The cheapest way to explore mars would be to send volunteers on a one-way ticket , prefarably individuals who have already done their bit in this world , and who would like ” to go out with a bang” …if we give up the stupid notion of humans living in zero gravity , and go for the cheapest possible rotating habitation module ( which could be a single habitation module rotating with a fuel tank as counterweight ) , no PHYSICAL heath limitations remains relevant .]

Except for low-rotational velocity tethered station keeping tests during the Gemini 11 and 12 missions (with the Agena target vehicles), since the 1960s NASA has seemingly purposely avoided investigations into rotating artificial gravity systems for space stations and long-duration crewed space missions. It seems as if they have created a “make-work” scientific problem for themselves by stubbornly refusing to even look at artificial gravity systems. The Mars Society conducted a test with mice in a 1 G rotating “space station” that was sized to accommodate them, and they lived and even reproduced with no ill effects. Also:

I still think Dr. Wernher von Braun’s wheel-shaped space station with a (temporarily) electrically de-spun docking section at its hub would be the best design for a space station. Advances in electronics since the 1950s would make its pumped-water balance maintenance system even more effective. Whenever crew members began walking about inside the station, accelerometers and infrared sensors would detect their masses, positions, and velocities, which would enable the station’s balance maintenance computer to automatically pump water between ballast tanks on the rim to keep the space station’s rotational axis centered on the hub. In addition:

When this space station was designed in the 1950s, engineers and physicians speculated that 1/4 G to 1/3 G might be sufficient for station crew members to live and work in space for six weeks at a time and return to Earth with no ill effects. The fact that we *still* do not know whether this is the case, sixty years after this space station was designed and five decades after humans first flew in space, is embarrassing. It is high time that we find out. As well:

Such a test station need not be von Braun’s grand “wheel”–as Ole Burde pointed out above, a simple rotating structure consisting of a habitation module and a fuel tank (or a spent upper stage) connected by a cable or an extendable boom (like the Voyager probes’ magnetometer booms) would suffice. One of Robert Bigelow’s inflatable habitation modules might be suitable for such an experimental space station; different cable or boom lengths (and/or different rotation rates) could be used to test different intensities of artificial gravity and coriolis force, to find out which values work best.

Kamal September 7, 2012 at 1:16

I for one am *completely mystified* why NASA seems to have
abandoned the line of research that would lead to spaceships with low simulated gravity. It would make traveling to Mars for one, greatly more palatable. Why dont they lay out a program of increasingly ambitious goals, the way they did with Apollo, starting with small simulated G spaceships and building out to larger ones to the point where they could be used to travel to Mars in relative comfort. I just dont get it.

Gregory Benford September 7, 2012 at 2:19

Paul, a parallel subject is hibernation, which could greatly modify habitat needs.
What’s been gained in this field over the last decade?

Paul Gilster September 7, 2012 at 14:04

Good point, Greg, and this is an area I need to look at. Maybe some of the readers will have been following this more closely than I have. In the meantime, I’ll try to get up to speed on it.

ljk September 7, 2012 at 15:55

Kamal said on September 7, 2012 at 1:16:

“I for one am *completely mystified* why NASA seems to have
abandoned the line of research that would lead to spaceships with low simulated gravity. It would make traveling to Mars for one, greatly more palatable. Why dont they lay out a program of increasingly ambitious goals, the way they did with Apollo, starting with small simulated G spaceships and building out to larger ones to the point where they could be used to travel to Mars in relative comfort. I just dont get it.”

LJK replies:

It is because NASA has essentially NO plans to send humans to Mars any time soon. The latest date I have heard is the 2040s and I am pretty sure it is going to be pushed out. When I was a kid they were seriously looking at this happening in the 1980s. The target date has been pushed further into the future ever since.

Oh sure, they do little things here and there related to manned Mars mission, but there is nothing serious. The Orion craft was originally meant to support the plan to put a permanent colony on Luna by 2025, but that disappeared. I am waiting to see if the talk about sending an Orion crew to some planetoids circa 2027 becomes anything more than just talk.

Did you know that they still have not worked out how to preserve food for a Mars crew for the two years or more that it would take to get there and back? I learned this on a recent Nova ScienceNOW program.

It is both stunning and disheartening to see how much we do not know about many aspects of human physiology in space, over five decades after the first cosmonaut and astronaut went into the void. Only a few people have gone to the Moon and that was a two-week voyage. The rest have remained in low Earth orbit, the record endurance being just over a year.

It is one thing to know and see that Earth is but minutes away in case of an emergency. But what happens when a crew is halfway to Mars and they cannot just turn around in a crisis?

Current robots and rovers may be slower and less intelligent than having a human team on Mars, but we should be grateful they are there, because if we had to wait for astronauts to get there, we would still be wondering. And it is only a matter of time before technology does allow for machines to explore other worlds carrying sophisticated automated chemistry and biology labs and have the AI smarts to handle multiple situations, both dangerous and recognizing scientifically interesting objects.

Note I am not talking about some science fictiony thinking computer or uploading a human mind into Curiousity’s descendants. I mean technology that will be programmed to emulate human thinking and behavior (or improve upon it) following the trend of smaller and better technology for the AI and the scientific instruments.

The ultimate reasons humans will and should go into space is for colonization purposes. Machines will only get better at the exploration aspects. Humans will also be dependent on their assistant mode cousins for a long time to come.

Now can private industry or one of the other space powers come through on this should the USA via NASA drop the ball? We shall see. And no, I do not want to see NASA and by default the USA fail, I am just trying to sound a wakeup call.

ljk September 7, 2012 at 16:46

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2150/1

The next best thing

by Dan Lester

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

“Taking pictures from orbit didn’t feel like real exploration to me. Lewis and Clark hadn’t looked down on the Louisiana Territory from orbit. What I really wanted, when you got right down to it, was martian dirt in my own boots. And if I couldn’t have that, I wanted the next best thing.”

– Steve Squyres, in Roving Mars, 2005

The lure of personally experiencing a new and unknown venue is a powerful one for human beings. Emplacing one’s presence at a faraway site, and absorbing the mysteries therein. Gazing across vistas that no one has ever seen and pushing aside obstacles to reveal hidden marvels. Leaving at least footprints, or perhaps initials inscribed in a rock, marking a site as one successfully visited. For outer space, this picture has been the prime driver for human space flight. It’s what we’ve come to call “space exploration”, for lack of a better phrase, and it’s a phrase that many define by humans sitting on rockets.

We’re not talking about “virtual” presence, any more than you’re “virtually” talking to your friend on the telephone. There is nothing “virtual” about a telephone conversation.

But we’ve reached a curious point in our history, where our technology now allows us to experience distant venues through electromechanical surrogates. This technology provides us with keen vision, precision mobility, and a measure of dexterity that approaches that of our hands and arms. Should hearing, smell, and touch be of interest, we could do that too.

The idea of exercising our senses through surrogates is nothing new. We’ve been using telephones widely for more than a century, using an induction coil attached to a diaphragm as a remote surrogate for our eardrum and middle ear. Vidicons long ago put our eyes in faraway places.

The early implementations of these surrogates often required, of course, having a person on the other end to enable the surrogate, holding the telephone up to their head, and moving the vidicon camera this way and that. While we’ve sent surrogates for our eyes to distant parts of the solar system, the Mars rovers now exercise our mobility, and to some extent our dexterity, in a gravity field on distant soil.

Thanks to the RAT tools on Spirit and Opportunity, and now the ChemCam laser on Curiosity, we’re leaving marks inscribed in rocks on Mars, and these vehicles certainly leave their tread marks, if not boot prints, in the soil.

It’s true that Lewis and Clark hadn’t looked down on the Louisiana Territory from orbit. They didn’t because they couldn’t. When you get right down to it, if they could have done that, they would have. In fact, if Thomas Jefferson had that capability, his Corps of Discovery might have been ensconced in a control room hunched over display terminals instead of hauling gunpowder and cartography equipment, and they would have gone home every day when their shift was done.

The progress of electromechanical surrogates, which we abbreviate with the term “telerobots”, has been startlingly rapid. In the last decade we’ve seen these surrogates extend both our awareness and our manipulative abilities into the ocean depths and even inside of human bodies through telerobotic surgery. These are places that we’d otherwise think of as being visited by small numbers of people encased in heavy pressure vessels, and even by Raquel Welch, in her completely fictitious Fantastic Voyage. It is reasonable to think that these surrogates will eventually relay complete senses and dexterity, as well as provide the mobility, of at least a spacesuited human.

We’re not talking about “virtual” presence, any more than you’re “virtually” talking to your friend on the telephone. There is nothing “virtual” about a telephone conversation. Defining “presence” as where your cognition is, rather than where your body is, we’re talking about real presence through surrogates. The idea of “telepresence”, which used to be considered somewhat technologically fantastical, is now becoming wholly credible. Isn’t it time for our perception of exploration to graduate from its historical underpinnings of dirt in boots and mature with our technology?

But there is a problem. The distances over which we want to exercise these surrogates impose a time delay on their control. For the Moon, that two-way time delay is at least 2.6 seconds, and for Mars it is far longer: 8 to 40 minutes. The lure of personal experience is in many ways defeated by these delays that render operation through surrogates in real time a decidedly local enterprise. These time delays, absolutely dictated by the speed of light, are what we call “latency”, and a fundamentally constrain earthbound humans in using these surrogates. These delays are, at minimum, what we routinely endure in “experiencing” Mars through our rover surrogates. What kind of personal experience has you turning your head, and waiting 40 minutes to see the view? Is experiencing distant space destinations through electromechanical surrogates really possible?

So, one might say, if we’re sending astronauts 99% of the way to the surface of Mars, why don’t we just send them down to the surface? Perhaps because we don’t need to.

It isn’t that easy to do so from Earth. But perhaps it is possible if we can get people close enough to those destinations. NASA has been recently thinking about strategies for on-orbit telerobotics, which would have astronauts travel close to a distant site, but not require them to descend into a gravity well; perhaps, instead, being in orbit around the site. Their lives in orbit would, in many respects, benefit from our vast experience with the International Space Station.

Their exposure to space radiation would be higher than for ISS, but not necessarily much higher than if they were on the surface of a planet, such as Mars, which has a thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field.

From their high perch, they could control surrogates in near-real time at many different surface locations, quite unlike the capabilities of astronauts who would land at one place on the surface. In the very near term, we’re thinking of doing that at the Moon, from Earth-Moon L1 (near side) or L2 (far side). While the latency advantages would be far less than for Mars, the concept of operations of on-orbit telerobotic control would be exercised.

So, one might say, if we’re sending astronauts 99% of the way to the surface of Mars, why don’t we just send them down to the surface? Perhaps because we don’t need to. Perhaps because surface operations add a thick layer of additional expense, complexity, and risk to a human trip to Mars. Perhaps because the astronauts can actually cover more ground from their high perch. Perhaps because planetary protection makes human visits to the surface problematical. Perhaps because even for resource development, we don’t need astronauts sitting in bulldozers or wrestling with shovels and pickaxes. So while they might like to get dirt in their own boots, these on-orbit astronauts could get dirt in a lot of surrogate boots all over the planet, and even shake the dirt out of them in real time.

My colleagues and I held a symposium at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center a few months ago to assess the promise of real-time robotic surrogates for exploring distant destinations. See http://telerobotics.gsfc.nasa.gov/, where videos and slide sets from the plenary presentations are posted.

This symposium was attended by almost a hundred members of the planetary science, robotics, and human spaceflight communities, as well as representatives of terrestrial commercial telepresence activities, such as surgery, mining, undersea operations, and inter-office cooperation.

Participants came from NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, as well as industry and academia. This diverse group was there to think about putting human “presence” at places where it was hard, or at least really inconvenient, to put humans, and to report on that to NASA. Stay tuned.

So with our Earth-controlled Mars rovers and orbiters reaping a new wealth of science, and in the face of serious funding challenges for space endeavors of all kinds, maybe the new next best thing for planetary exploration is on-orbit telerobotics and exploration telepresence: putting real-time human cognition on a planetary surface without quite putting people all the way there. To the extent you eventually want to get dirt between your toes (perhaps a tray full of regolith in a surface habitat would let you do that?) as opposed to dirt in some boots, this strategy may help pave the way.

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Dr. Dan Lester is an infrared astronomer at the University of Texas with a background in instrument development. He is active in NASA strategic planning activities, large space telescope concept studies, and writes regularly on space policy. With the understanding that the next big things evolve, he strongly believes in keeping on the lookout for them.

Bounty September 7, 2012 at 20:00

If you’re only interested in rock composition, robots are fine. If you have any interest at all in biology in space, you need to put biology in space. The most important and valuable science return from a manned Mars mission, would be the biology science, not Martian geology. This science would be more than 300 times more valuable than knowing if Mars ever had water.

Eniac September 8, 2012 at 15:42

When this space station was designed in the 1950s, engineers and physicians speculated that 1/4 G to 1/3 G might be sufficient for station crew members to live and work in space for six weeks at a time and return to Earth with no ill effects. The fact that we *still* do not know whether this is the case, sixty years after this space station was designed and five decades after humans first flew in space, is embarrassing.

I am not sure I understand. We have had humans stay in space, at zero gravity, for more than a year, without ill effects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valeri_Polyakov#Spaceflights).

One possible reason why NASA is not working much on artificial gravity might be that is is considered unnecessary, because experience shows that people do just fine in zero gravity. Am I missing something?

ljk September 9, 2012 at 0:11

Do we really know that humans can exist in a microgravity environment indefinitely without harm? What about radiation and other factors? One year in space by a handful of people in low Earth orbit is not sufficient to know for certain.

Eniac September 9, 2012 at 15:06

@LJK: Nothing is ever for certain, but having a handful of people who actually stayed over a year is pretty close, I think. It definitely shows a lot more than the original poster was asking for (6 weeks at 1/4 to 1/3 G). Better to spend the research money on ideas less well demonstrated, and there are plenty of those.

James Jason Wentworth September 10, 2012 at 1:02

Eniac wrote:

[I am not sure I understand. We have had humans stay in space, at zero gravity, for more than a year, without ill effects (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valeri_Polyakov#Spaceflights).

One possible reason why NASA is not working much on artificial gravity might be that is is considered unnecessary, because experience shows that people do just fine in zero gravity. Am I missing something?]

We do not know–due to a lack of experiments–whether fractional-G artificial gravity is sufficient for indefinite periods, or whether a full 1 G environment is necessary to prevent bone loss and other microgravity-related health problems during very long duration space missions. Also:

Even after only two weeks in free fall, astronauts take a little while to fully get their “Earth legs” back. Not only would it be interesting to see if two weeks (or two months) at 1/4 G to 1/3 G would greatly reduce this re-adaptation period, but this would also provide clues about whether prolonged periods (years) spent in fractional-G environments on the Moon or Mars would be detrimental to health.

ljk September 10, 2012 at 9:27

We still know next to nothing about reproduction in space, which is obviously vital for future colonists on other worlds, all of which will be of lower gravity than Earth (except for Venus, but I doubt we will have colonies there any time soon).

Astronauts in microgravity lose bone mass from prolonged stays, among other issues. Cosmonauts get set down in special chairs immediately after landing. Space Shuttle astronauts probably would have done the same, but they all want to be seen and photographed standing outside the vessel after a mission, even if they collapse later (it happened several times that we know of).

I guess we will just have to find out once the first lunar and Mars colonies are set up. Perhaps this is another reason for the suggestions that their trips to those worlds be considered one way only. Earth gravity might be too much for them and their descendants.

ljk September 13, 2012 at 8:53

The US Government shows exactly how high they place space exploration on their list of important items to support:

http://www.planetary.org/blogs/casey-dreier/20120912-senate-hearing-empty.html

ljk September 28, 2012 at 9:12

This should be read and shared by everyone who cares about space exploration and humanity’s future in the Universe:

http://amyshirateitel.com/2012/09/28/the-cost-of-curiosity/

To quote:

“One of my favourite things we spend a lot of money on in America is Valentine’s Day. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent upwards of $17.6 billion celebrating the holiday in 2012 – that’s enough, in one year, for seven Curiosity-type missions. That figure breaks down to an average of $126.03 spent per person on things like chocolates, cards, and jewelry. Curiosity, over the full 9 years, cost every American just $8. That’s less than the price of a movie ticket on a Saturday night in most cities.”

Also read the numbers for how much the USA spends on defense annually and what churches could contribute if they were taxed – heaven forbid.

ljk October 15, 2012 at 9:17

so just how do you build an artificial brain?

September 22, 2012

Journalist and skeptic Steven Poole is breathing fire in his scathing review of the current crop of trendy pop neuroscience books, citing rampant cherry-picking, oversimplifications, and constant presentations of much-debated functions of the brain as having been settled with fMRI and the occasional experiment or two with supposedly definitive results.

He goes a little too heavy on the style, ridiculing the clichés of pop neurology and abuse of the science to land corporate lecture gigs where executives eager to seem innovative want to try out the latest trend in management, and is a little too light on some of the scientific debates he touches, but overall his point is quite sound.

We do not know enough about the brain to start writing casual manuals on how it works and how you can best get in touch with your inner emotional supercomputer. And since so much of the human mind is still an enigma, how can we even approach trying to build an artificial one as requested by the Singularitarians and those waiting for robot butlers and maids?

While working on the key part of my expansion on Hivemind — which I really need to start putting on GitHub and documenting for public comment — that question has been weighing heavily on my mind because this is basically what I’m building; a decentralized robot brain. But despite my passable knowledge of how operating systems, microprocessors, and code work, and a couple years of psychology in college, I’m hardly a neuroscientist.

How would I go about replicating the sheer complexity of a brain in silicon, stacks, and bytes? My answer? I’d take the easy way out and not even try.

Evolution is a messy process and involved living things that don’t stop to try to debug and optimize themselves, so it’s little wonder that the brain is a maze of neurons that are loosely organized by some very vague, basic rules and is really, really difficult to unravel. It has the immense task of carrying fragments of memory to be reconstructed, consciousness, learned and instinctual responses, sensory processing and recognition, and even high level logic in one wet lump of metabolically vampiric tissue which has to work 24/7/365 for decades.

Full article here:

http://worldofweirdthings.com/2012/09/22/so-just-how-do-you-build-an-artificial-brain/

ljk November 20, 2012 at 15:03

I hope this really is something “earthshaking”, and I mean something the general public will get excited about. Otherwise I wish they would cut the hyperbole.

http://www.universetoday.com/98576/has-curiosity-made-an-earth-shaking-discovery/

ljk January 7, 2013 at 14:49

Mars rover spots formations resembling flower, snake

The Mars Curiosity rover has sent back images of what appear to be a flower-like shape embedded in a rock and a snake-shaped rock stretching across the Red Planet, causing a stir among NASA officials and space enthusiasts alike.

Guy Webster, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the flower-like object “appears to be part of the rock, not debris from the spacecraft.” Space.com

http://www.space.com/19143-mars-flower-curiosity-rover-photos.html

ljk February 16, 2013 at 19:57

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/02/mars-sample-recovery-quarantine-1985/

Mars Sample Recovery & Quarantine (1985)

BY DAVID S. F. PORTREE

02.14.138:06 PM

Beginning in late 1983, a team of engineers and scientists from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Science Applications Incorporated jointly defined a Mars Sample Return (MSR) spacecraft and mission plan. Among their proposed follow-on study objectives for Fiscal Year 1985 was to define Mars sample quarantine methods and any associated risks. In addition, the team recognized the need to rapidly recover the Mars sample after its arrival at Earth.

JSC’s Solar System Exploration Division contracted with Houston-based Eagle Engineering to examine these issues and provide “rough” cost estimates. In its study, performed between May and September 1985, Eagle explored 10 options for retrieving a Mars sample following its return to Earth’s vicinity. In the process, the company presented an impromptu portrait of NASA’s human spaceflight aspirations for the mid-1990s on the eve of the 28 January 1986 Challenger accident.

Eagle found that Direct Entry into Earth’s atmosphere, with an estimated price tag of from $5.2 to $9.8 million, would be the simplest and cheapest Mars sample recovery option, but would also carry the greatest risk (one chance in 600,000) of contaminating the terrestrial environment with potentially “malignant” martian microbes. Eagle acknowledged, however, that its contamination risk estimates (which, it explained, were based on “limited data”) were arbitrary.

In Direct Entry, a reentry capsule carrying the sealed Mars sample canister would intersect Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii traveling at upwards of 11 kilometers per second. An ablative coating would protect the capsule from reentry heating. Eagle noted that a shallow atmosphere-entry angle would subject the sample canister to a long heat pulse, a low deceleration load, and imprecise landing site targeting (and, therefore, possible delayed recovery), while a steep angle would yield a short heat pulse, a high deceleration load, and more precise targeting.

NASA would, 20 years after Eagle completed its study, rely on the Direct Entry option to complete two sample-return missions, neither of which collected planetary surface samples. For both missions, Lockheed Martin was the contractor and the large military testing & training area in the Great Salt Lake Desert of western Utah was the sample recovery site.

Link to full article at top.

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