Friday, November 30, 2012

Robotic Surrogates and Virtual Travel

Space travel and Exploration has always been NASA’s mandate, their mission statement, but perhaps the exploration of the past is not the exploration of the future. NASA has spoken of returning to the moon, of a manned mission to Mars and then perhaps an asteroid, but do we need to actually be there?

Currently NASA has a mini robot called Mocop (Meteron Operations and Communications Prototype) which was first designed as a lego robot called Mindstorm. Mocup is actually the first phase of a European Space Agencies’ project called Multi-purpose End-To-End Robotic Operations Network or METERON.

Thanks to the ISS this robot has already been controlled successfully from space with the robot on the ground in Germany. And there are other robotic devices that NASA has in mind and aims on testing in 2013. Such as K-10, a new robot built with the eventuality in mind that future astronauts would wait out in space, maybe closer to earth or maybe in orbit around the object of exploration. From there they could control the robots and do their exploration virtually through them.

This certainly eliminates both risk and cost for many journeys, but there are other concerns. Can claim of lands and worlds and discovery be made through a robotic device? There is more to consider than exploration and discovery, there’s expansion, manifest destiny. (To use John O’Sullivan’s term from 1845, but instead of simply referring to going west we are looking to the stars.)

Perhaps the future holds a different beginning to the exploration. Instead of ending manned missions, suspending them until we receive not only the all-clear but also have the means to get there is day and not years. Technology seems to already offer he answers that enable this type of virtual exploration, but near light speed travel still eludes us as does keeping our astronauts safe from radiation and other space concerns.

I still dream of going to space and I’m sure I am not alone. Virtual Exploration maybe a temporary fix, but someone is going to be the first man on mars – or woman!

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