Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Robots and Humans across the Solar System

Over at Wired Science, there is a post with the fairly dramatic title Humans vs. Robots: Who Should Dominate Space Exploration  Now I enjoy Wired's articles despite their somewhat inflammatory titles. While this article has some interesting information, I dislike the false dichotomy between the two sides. Especially since the tech heavy readership (if the comments are anything to go by-and I know it isn't the best representation) do not understand geological field work in the slightest. The problem with robots are simply that they aren't people, they can have automatic functions and carry out experiments on other worlds, but they can't make snap decisions based on years of expertise.  In short, robots are tools, but there has to be people working those tools for them to be useful.

One of the main problems for robots is the delay between the robot detecting something, sending that to Earth, Earth receiving it, deciding what to do, then sending the instructions to the robot, the robot performing that operation, sending the results back to the Earth, and then the researchers ensuring that the robot did what it was supposed to do and then analyzing the data. As it can take several minutes for radio waves to travel from Mars to Earth, the delay eats up a lot of time; in addition, the rover teams always have to consider if the robot can accomplish its goals. Can the robot make it up the hill? Is the sand too loose for it to drive through? Are the systems operating efficiently? These questions eat up time, and if you read about the MER rovers you'll see stories about the rovers spinning their wheels for several meters worth of travel, but being stuck in the sand and not moving. These are problems humans can identify and fix quickly, without the need of caretakers back on Earth.

The article brings up a comparison of Apollo 17 (the only moon trip which NASA decided that a geologist might be useful) and the MER rovers, now I love the little guys; however, it took them eight years to cover the ground that the astronauts covered in three days, and at the end of the robot's leash were human experts. I don't mean to come down on the side of Team Human (though I guess I'd have to in a robot uprising) because the robots are an invaluable tool and extremely important for our understanding and future exploration of the solar system.

There is truth in the old saying "look before you leap" and that is where robots come in, we don't know exactly what is out there, thus rather than sending humans into the unknown without a clue as to what they are landing in, we send robots to scout the trail ahead. I believe the first Mars colonists will be extremely grateful for the information gained by the different rovers and probes that went before them, that information will be invaluable for telling us the dangers facing the first human explorers, and is vitally important. In addition, NASA has been experimenting with different robotic systems to help humans in outer space, Robonaut is already aboard the ISS working with astronauts, and the engineers at NASA have also developed similar 'centaur' systems which may be useful on other planets.

Although, I'm not sure that these robots can ever replace human explorers in the long run, as even compared to a burdensome space suit they are not as natural for an astronaut to use to collect samples or to operate heavy instruments like drills. While robots will most likely be a vital part of human exploration, they will most likely work along side humans, helping planetary geologists gather data and perform experiments. 

Especially if we expect to find life on Mars, we will have to rely on human explorers. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, once commented that if you dropped a fleet of robotic explorers into Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado they wouldn't be able to find a single fossil, and most paleontologists I've talked to tend to agree with this as well. It will take meticulous human exploration, not weighed down by extensive lag times to conduct a thorough geologic investigation of the Moon and Mars. Robots will always be useful and at the forefront of planetary exploration. However, it will take the boots of trained geologists (of which there has been only been one) on the other terrestrial objects in the solar system before we can develop a clear pictures of the geologic processes throughout the Solar System.

Edit: Sorry but I realized yesterday that I had something I needed to add

Yesterday I watched the TAM9 Future in Space panel discussion, and as usual (I've seen it several times) really enjoyed it; however, one thing really bugged me. When they talked about human or robotic exploration of the planets, there was fairly diverse opinions, but they all agreed to some extent that the point of human exploration was to keep the public interested and that in the near future robots could do it better than humans. I won't comment on the feasibility of autonomous robotic telescopes in astronomy as I am not all that knowledgeable in that field. I would ask, though, that if they feel the need to comment on planetary exploration they would return the consideration and ask a planetary geologist. The problem is that the panel had two astrophysicists (three if you include Phil Plait but he didn't talk much), a cosmologist, and a mechanical engineer, but no geologists or planetary scientists.

It is not like there wasn't any highly qualified scientists with experience with public speaking or outreach that they could have contacted. In fact, Dr. Jim Bell is the president of the Planetary Society (thus he works with Bill Nye) and is on the same facility as Dr. Lawrence Krauss, so it seems like somebody could have gotten a hold of him for this. In addition, the Planetary Society's great blogger Emily Lakdawalla has her degree in geology, there is also Dr. Bell's student, Dr. Ryan Anderson, who blogs at Martian Chronicles at the AGU blog network and the MER Principle Investigator and author Dr. Steven Squyres. I don't see how none of these people were tapped for this panel. They all would have provided a different point of view than those present, and I would think that they could have provided some interesting insight into future planetary exploration.

As any immediate future in Space will involve landing on rocky bodies which planetary scientists are already studying, it again is strange that any panel discussion on this wouldn't include somebody with a background in both space science and geologic field work. I hope that any other organizations that decide to hold similar panels will include planetary scientists or geologists as astronomers usually don't do field work.

However, if you have not seen the video please do so, it is highly entertaining and very informational.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that a human Mars mission could do far, far more than its cost in unmanned probes . . . right now. The problem is that it would realistically take 10-20 years to launch a manned Mars mission if we started tomorrow and dodged cancellation. I'm not convinced that probes 10-20 years down the line won't be able to find fossils or engage in autonomous examination.