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NASA: Future space missions to rely on human-robot partnership

As astronauts push out into the expanse of space, robots will be their companions, helpers

November 12, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The future of space exploration will depend on humans and robots working hand in hand as manned and unmanned missions head back to the moon, to Mars and the farther expanses of space, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Robots have already made their way into several missions, but Carl Walz, director of advanced capabilities at NASA and a former astronaut, said that "we're just starting to scratch the surface of these concepts. It'll be absolutely critical. What we're trying to do is figure out how best to incorporate human exploration and robots. I think the nature of exploration will be different [because of robots]."

For the past five months, a 7.5-foot long robotic arm on the Mars Lander scraped up ice and scooped up soil for analysis in the spacecraft. Matthew Robinson, robotic arm flight software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said this summer that the robotic arm was the key piece of the whole Mars mission. The robotic arm and the Mars Lander froze to death this month in the lengthening Martian night.

"None of it is any good if you don't have a robotic arm to bring in samples," he added. "We'd be able to get pictures, but what excites me is acquiring a sample and processing it, because that gives us a whole new set of knowledge. We're not looking for life itself. We're looking for the elements that support life. We couldn't do it without the arm."

The two Mars Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, also have robotic parts that are helping them traverse the Martian landscape and send information back to Earth. And onboard the International Space Station, a $200 million, a 12-foot-tall robot was set up this past spring to handle maintenance jobs outside the facility, relieving astronauts of the need to make many dangerous space walks.

Allard Beutel, a spokesman for NASA said in a previous interview with Computerworld that these missions are the first steps in a robotic partnership that will help humans press further out into the solar system.

"The work we're doing now -- the robotics we're doing -- is what we're going to need to do to build any workstation or habitat structure on the moon or Mars," said Beutel. "Yes, this is just the beginning."

Further joint human-robot projects will "be a symbiotic relationship," he said. "It's part of a long-term effort for us to branch out into the solar system. We're going to need this type of hand-in-robotic-hand [effort] to make this happen. We're in the infancy of space exploration. We have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any."

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