Image: A human crew in orbit around Mars controls a suite of robotic surrogates, including a rover, climbing-bot, and miniature sample-return rocket.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think

By Adam Mann
November 12, 2012 | 6:30 am

Mocup is a tiny, adorable remote-controlled robot built from a Lego Mindstorms set with an off-the-shelf Beagleboard computer for a brain and a webcam for an eye. The machine is not fundamentally different from many other RC robots — except for the fact that its controller operates it from space.

The cat-sized robot can do little more than move around, avoid obstacles, and transmit video. It’s mostly a testbed for communications to help humans in orbit and robots on the surface of a planet work seamlessly together. On Oct. 23, astronaut Sunita Williams sent commands from the International Space Station to Mocup – which stands for the Meteron Operations and Communications Prototype – telling it to travel around an obstacle course in Germany. The test may seem mundane but Mocup represents the first step in dramatically redefining how we discover and investigate the universe.

To most people, exploration means the kinds of things that travelers did in the past — Captain James Cook charting islands in the vast Pacific Ocean or Robert Peary and Frederick Cook planting a flag at the North Pole. The 1960s and ’70s Apollo landings, with their flags and footprints legacy, were a continuation of this idea and many people assume that this is how future planetary exploration will proceed.

“An ‘explorer’ looks to us like Columbus, Magellan, or Lewis and Clark,” said astronomer Dan Lester from the University of Texas at Austin. “But should that be true anymore? I think not. Those people weren’t wired, and if they were, they would have done what they did in a very different way. It actually takes some cultural courage to give up that old historical definition of exploration and look at it more honestly. Can we do that?”

Rumors are currently swirling that NASA may soon announce plans to send humans back to the moon and then, onward, to an asteroid and Mars. While this immediately invokes visions of moon bases and the first footsteps on Mars, the truth is likely to be very different.

Nowadays some scientists and engineers at NASA and other space agencies are taking a second look at historical exploration scenarios. In the past, robotic and human exploration have been seen as rivals, we either do one or the other. Some in the spaceflight community have said we can do everything with machines while others argued that exploration is a man’s job. But there’s another option. The still-nascent field of telerobotics, where humans operate robotic surrogates from afar, means that our next exploration efforts will be quite unlike anything seen before.

Read more: Almost Being There: Why the Future of Space Exploration Is Not What You Think | Wired Science.

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