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

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."

Walz, who was an astronaut for 13 years and once did a seven-hour space walk, said NASA is creating robots that move on wheels or legs. NASA robots can also have workable arms as well as a cabin to carry human passengers. NASA has been testing five or six robots with various skills in Black Point Lava Flow, Ariz., with the hope of eventually using them in space missions.

"If you're looking at large robots, they can move heavy equipment around. If you're trying to hook two pressurized volumes together, having a legged robot to move them into position is very important," said Walz. "The other thing that they provide is additional range. When you're in a space suit and you have to walk distances, you tire yourself out and wear out the suit. Having a robotic vehicle lets you explore longer in time and longer in distance."

He noted that a White House push for manned missions to Mars will require that NASA first send robots there. NASA scientists plan on positioning robots and robotic rovers on Mars before the first astronauts arrive. That way, the robots will be ready to help their human counterparts on what will probably be NASA's most taxing mission yet.

The astronauts will need robots to help them build any workstation or habitat structure before people arrive. Robots also may be called on to create rocket fuel out of gases in the atmosphere so the astronauts have the fuel they need to get home.

"We're planning to develop an outpost and maintain it, and we'll need to have machines to help humans and take on some of the overhead," said Walz. "When you're talking about really long trips, you're going to lead with your robots and follow [with humans] when the propulsion systems and life-support systems catch up."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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