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Mars Moon NASA Robotics Space Science Hardware

NASA Outlines Plan For Next-Gen Space Robots 89

Posted by Soulskill
from the more-than-meets-the-eye dept.
CWmike writes "Imagine a team of robots — some rolling on wheels, some walking on two legs — working alongside astronauts on the surface of Mars, scouting previously unseen locations, measuring the parameters of a new base or constructing a building. Now picture astronauts driving across the Martian surface in a vehicle. When the astronauts get out and begin their work, they can flip a switch to turn the vehicle into an autonomous robot that goes off to undertake projects on the planet. Whatever work the next generation of NASA-developed space robots does, it will be done in conjunction with their human counterparts. Terry Fong, director of NASA's intelligent robotics group, said that's the image that a lot of the US space agency's engineers have in mind as they work on the new robotic rovers. In comparison, the Mars rovers on the Red Planet have been working alone for years. 'We're working on a new use of these robots — robots to support human exploration,' Fong said. 'NASA is now thinking, "How do you go about sending humans to the moon or Mars or elsewhere? How can you use the combination of humans and robots to do exploration better?" I think it's a really, really fundamentally different approach.' Fong said he's hopeful that the next-generation robotic rovers will arrive on the moon or on an asteroid within five to 10 years."
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NASA Outlines Plan For Next-Gen Space Robots

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/mars-rover-beginning-to-hate-mars,2072/

  • by jwietelmann (1220240) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:04PM (#32130280)
    Why don't we just wait for the space robots to find us?
  • by joelsanda (619660) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:06PM (#32130312) Homepage
    Aren't we going to be relying upon other countries just to cart stuff and people to and from the ISS after the space shuttles hit the Smithsonian?
    • by Jeng (926980) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:11PM (#32130416)

      Shuttle doesn't launch interplanetary missions.

      We aren't launching robots to the ISS.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by downix (84795)
      Why would we when we have so [wikipedia.org] many [wikipedia.org] options [wikipedia.org] we [wikipedia.org] can [wikipedia.org] use [wikipedia.org] instead? [wikipedia.org]
      • by sznupi (719324)

        BTW, so why exactly do you need Ariane V to launch James Webb Space Telescope? ;)

      • Pegasus: 443kg to LEO
        Minotaur: 580kg to LEO
        Athena: 1896kg to LEO. This might just be enough to get a single astronaut to the ISS. Getting him/her home is another story.
        Taurus: 5500kg to LEO. Two up, maybe one down.
        Falcon 9: Not operational yet.
        Delta IV: 25,800 kg to LEO. Enough to lift an Orion module to ISS... barely.
        Atlas V: 29,420 kg to LEO. Again, enough to lift an Orion module, but nothing much beyond that.

        We want to go to the Moon, to Near Earth Objects, to Mars. None of the rockets you
        • by khallow (566160) on Friday May 07, 2010 @05:37PM (#32133338)

          Pegasus: 443kg to LEO Minotaur: 580kg to LEO Athena: 1896kg to LEO. This might just be enough to get a single astronaut to the ISS. Getting him/her home is another story. Taurus: 5500kg to LEO. Two up, maybe one down. Falcon 9: Not operational yet. Delta IV: 25,800 kg to LEO. Enough to lift an Orion module to ISS... barely. Atlas V: 29,420 kg to LEO. Again, enough to lift an Orion module, but nothing much beyond that.

          Delta II: 1989
          Delta IV: 2002
          Delta IV Heavy: 2004
          Pegasus: 1990
          Taurus: 1994
          Athena: 1995
          Atlas V: 2002
          Falcon 1: 2006
          Falcon 9: pending, 2010?
          Minotaur I: 2000
          Minotaur II: 2000
          Minotaur IV: 2010

          The thing to notice here is that with the exception of a few rockets from Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences (including the very popular Delta II), every commercial US rocket currently flying has started (I include launch failures in the above list) in the last ten years. In particular the big payload rockets, Delta IV and Atlas V both started in 2002, eight years ago. Why have NASA develop an HLV when we have an active launch market that already has shown it can develop rockets? While DIRECT and the "not Shuttle C" options look like means to quickly convert the Shuttle stack into a viable cargo launch vehicle for a much lower cost than Ares V, it's not clear to me why we should go that route when we can encourage commercial launch vehicles to enter this area.

          My view is that instead, NASA should work its current manned approach around 15-25 ton launch vehicles. Then order larger vehicles around 50 or so tons once NASA has demonstrated a willingness to help establish a manned market in the 15-25 ton range.

          • My view is that instead, NASA should work its current manned approach around 15-25 ton launch vehicles. Then order larger vehicles around 50 or so tons once NASA has demonstrated a willingness to help establish a manned market in the 15-25 ton range.

            Well that makes no sense. There are already half a dozen viable launch vehicles in the 15-25 ton range. Why should NASA spend billions of dollars to develop yet another one? We are going beyond the ISS; to the Moon, Near Earth Objects, Mars, etc. A 25 ton
            • by khallow (566160)

              Well that makes no sense. There are already half a dozen viable launch vehicles in the 15-25 ton range. Why should NASA spend billions of dollars to develop yet another one? We are going beyond the ISS; to the Moon, Near Earth Objects, Mars, etc. A 25 ton launcher ain't gonna cut it.

              Sorry, I meant for NASA to use current and near future US commercial rockets in this range not build an Ares I. As to your second point, a 25 ton rocket plus a propellant depot and some sort of docking/orbital assembly technology can indeed "cut it". There's the saying that the largest item that needs to be launched is the human body.

        • by downix (84795)

          Oh, I am a DIRECT fanboy, no arguments there. I was only countering his argument that with the Shuttles retirement, that we have no access to space.

      •   Not to mention the seldom understood but often talked about fact that we would have been relying on the Russians for transport to the ISS for at least half a decade under the Constellation program anyway.

          When it comes to educating people, redundancy is important.

        SB

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nyeerrmm (940927)

      The space program is funded. The reason for the gap isn't a lack of funding, its a matter of extremely poor management. The new direction for the budget is probably going to get our manned program back off the ground, if it ever passes.

      Additionally, we have plenty of ways to get unmanned stuff off the ground, only manned vehicles are an issue. The unmanned space program should be (and is) a source of pride for the country, and is doing quite well.

      • by scottbell (114847)

        The space program is funded. The reason for the gap isn't a lack of funding, its a matter of extremely poor management.

        Not true. Both the NRC report [washingtonpost.com]

        The report urged Congress and the White House to seriously examine the mismatch between the tasks assigned to NASA and the resources that the agency has been provided to accomplish them.

        and the Augustine report [thespacereview.com]:

        "...Augustine acknowledged that they had not found any mismanagement nor any insurmountable technical obstacles to the completion of the current program."

        contradict your statement. NASA has been perennially underfunded [bbc.co.uk].

        • by Nyeerrmm (940927) on Friday May 07, 2010 @04:50PM (#32133096)

          While those quotes are correct, and I agree with them, they don't disagree with what I'm saying.

          There was a mismatch between goals and funds. You can interpret this to mean that they need more money, but hoping that Congress opens the purse-strings for something that doesn't get many votes isn't a proper plan for exploration. NASA has funding, they just need to use it more wisely. Something like Constellation is only going to happen with Apollo-level funding, which while as you and I know would be very good and not too draining, this is not politically viable.

          And the comment about a lack of mismanagement is referring to the program managers at NASA. They were given a task, and they performed admirably to do the best they could do at what was an impossible task. The mismanagement I refer to is from the political leadership going back 30 years. Post-shuttle NASA history is littered with cancelled programs that attempted to do ridiculously hard things without getting the basics right. The Constellation program (which never really sought to fulfill the goals set out by Bush, who never called Griffin on his shenanigans) was only feasible under Bush's promise to get more money out of Congress -- a promise he never came through on and didn't try very hard for. Griffin took him at his word and never had a descope option to handle the inevitable problems when that didn't go smoothly. All of this leaves us trying to build something to go to the moon on a shoestring budget when NASA seems to have forgotten how to build a manned spacecraft at all.

          We need to step out of the shadow of Apollo and figure out what actually works under modern budgets with modern political pressures.

  • The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.
    • Nope... (Score:2, Informative)

      by Frosty Piss (770223)

      The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain.

      No, they will be fought with computers. [imdb.com] And when the numbers are calculated, people on the appropriate side will be directed to the Death Chambers.

  • Imagine a team of robots -- some rolling on wheels, some walking on two legs...

    People are obsessed with the idea of robots that look like we do. And in time, technology will get there. But it isn't necessarily the most efficient / practical / useful way to do it.

    http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/darpas-robot-dog-project-03457/ [defenseindustrydaily.com]

    • by sznupi (719324)

      Human-form robot might be optimal for maintaining (generally working in) small spaces (and human habitats outside Earth will be like that for some time) meant for humans - you don't have to do wastefull changes to the design of habitat just to accomodate the robot.

      Also, a humanoid torso with "arms" (might be more than two! Switching between apropriate ones / using inactive arm or arms (if even more than 3) as a temporary hold of objects being worked on) and stereoscopic cameras where the head should be migh

      • by Locke2005 (849178)
        "Humanoid" seems like a poor term to describe an many legged robot. Perhaps "insectoid" or "arachnoid" would be more accurate?
        • by sznupi (719324)

          "Mantisoid" would seem appropriate for those I was (also) describing :) (many legs or wheels for movement, vaguely human-like torso for possibility of efficient teleoperation; and in the case of many legged one, part of those legs might simply transform into arm-like usage)

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      Looking like a human is only a valid design constraint for a sexbot. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to take some of those into space, but I suspect that is one function that definitely would be better performed by a human being of the appropriate gender.
      • by gbjbaanb (229885)

        Looking like a human is only a valid design constraint for a sexbot. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to take some of those into space

        but taking sheepbots into space is just so wrong :)

  • "Imagine a team of robots — some rolling on wheels, some walking on two legs — working alongside astronauts on the surface of Mars" The problem is never NASA having great plans or imagination, the problem is soon they will be firing toy rockets from hobby shops and cashing all thier gov't checks at a Money Mart. Like my drunk friends at parties you really do have to hve a great imagination to see them going anywhere. NASA needs to set reasonable, affordable goals based on thier budget, and the
  • "When the astronauts get out and begin their work, they can flip a switch to turn the vehicle into an autonomous robot that goes off to undertake projects on the planet." Hopefully, not the kind of projects which might leave the astronauts stranded.
    • I agree completely. During the Apollo missions, the vehicles the astronauts drove on the moon were considered a critical component of the astronaut's life support system, in a way. The carried emergency supplies, communication equipment, and most importantly, the ability to ferry the astronauts back to the lander quickly. The missions were designed to allow the astronauts to walk back to the lander before they exhausted their life support if needed (by progressively having them work back toward the lander a
  • In the midst of our determination to outsource or automate any job of our society, including sex, what makes anyone think that Obama's privatization of space will lead to putting a 'man' anywhere in space? Who could build a case for the added cost of sending a human through at least 50 million miles of space and back again, when a machine will be able to do it at 1/100th the cost and, BTW, does not necessarily need to return? By the projected time of sending a 'man' to Mars, machines will be capable of do
    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      You're absolutely right. Putting a 'man' in space is ludicrous. We need to send women to space instead -- they're expendable!
  • Let me know if I'm way off base here, but once we have humans on site, why do we need robots? The robots we sent did some good work in their years of operation, but nothing humans couldn't have done in a tiny fraction of the time. Given that we happen to be the absolute best tool users ever to exist (and by a large margin), why not save tons of weight and just ship tools instead? In order to have this magical vehicle/robot (I like to call them "autobots") do anything real, we need a human making decisions.
    • We don't yet know of any planets or other worlds that are not totally toxic to humans. Sure, we can build spacesuits and space craft to support humans to do these things. But machines can go these places and do these things. We have to start somewhere, robots today lead to the robots of tomorrow. We don't just start out with iRobot. We build robots with incremental technological advances until we get to iRobot.
      • And then we become the Borg. Slippery slope! First it's an electronic ear for the deaf. Then we replace the eyes. Next we develop an interface that connects our brains directly with our computers (or at least iTunes)... Then our bodies become the robot.
    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      We need robots on site because when I yell "Go fetch me a beer, bitch!" at a robot, they dutifully perform the assigned task, whereas when I say that to another human being, they tend to kick me in the balls! Any questions?
    • by sznupi (719324)

      You forget that "we happen to be the absolute best tool users ever to exist" is absolutelly the case only in Earth environment; we evolved for conditions here after all.

      But exploration outside of Earth isn't nearly as straightforward for humans. We even have robots on ISS after all... (Canadarm2 for example and also the vaguely humanoid one on top of Canadarm2, meant for teleoperation; apparently eliminating large part of spacewalks even in comfy 0g enviroment, surrounded by very predictable objects and und

    • You have to factor in the weight of the person and life support. There's also the matter of longevity. A human might have to return to base after life support runs out while a robot can remain on task (without sleep or breaks) until maintenance is required, which may be indefinite (i.e. Mars rovers). Miniaturization is a consideration as a robot may be shrunk down based on mission requirements making transport cheaper whereas a human is always going to have the same mass/volume. Then there's aptitude, w

    • by Laser Dan (707106)

      Humans need a pressurised environment and a continuous supply of oxygen/food/water, and generally prefer to be returned to earth at some point.
      Robots need none of this so can be sent with a lot less mass (cost) and dont need resupply or recovery. So even if they are less capable than humans, you can send more of them for the same cost and they can stay a lot longer.

  • by icebike (68054) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:22PM (#32130614)

    This sounds like a recipe for turning the humans into maintenance and support staff for the robots.

    It seems to me that every time man has developed such devices 4 or 5 times as many people who used to do the work are now employed supporting the device that does the actual work.

    A human needs food and shelter and science tools. A team of robot + humans needs all that plus a maintenance shop, additional technicians, spare parts, operations specialists to manage the robots when on-missions.

    A dumb transport might require some of these, but a "smart" transport will require more.

    We just barely are able to get a car to run a course with no on board humans [wikipedia.org], but the staff behind this project vastly exceeds the cost of hiring a driver. And the car still can't go half the places a driven car could.

    In short, this is a human resource sponge. It would be easier and less costly and require fewer humans to do this sort of science with humans than doing it with semi autonomous robots.

    And unlike flying Predator drones on the other side of the planet from an air conditioned office in Nevada, signal delay would require on-mars remote operations staff for anything more sophisticated than the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

    Oh, and Send my only transportation off on some scouting mission while I take core samples in some remote ravine far from my base? I don't think so.

    Besides AMEE Freaks me Out. [wikipedia.org]

    • It seems to me that every time man has developed such devices 4 or 5 times as many people who used to do the work are now employed supporting the device that does the actual work.

      Yes, this is the case now and for the near future.

      But eventually, robots will be autonomous and able to service themselves.

      It's a progression of advances, and you have to start someplace.

      • But eventually, robots will be autonomous and able to service themselves.

        So we're going to get them to masturbate? Wow, science is advancing at a faster rate than anticipated!

      • by icebike (68054)

        But eventually, robots will be autonomous and able to service themselves.

        It's a progression of advances, and you have to start someplace.

        True, but Mars is not that place. (Hence the title of this sub-thread).

    • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:34PM (#32130820) Homepage Journal

      A manned mission gets simpler and cheaper if it doesn't have to go in and out of the Martian gravity well. Land the tele-operated machines on a one-way trip, keep the human operators in orbit. No life-support mass to lift off the surface, no fuel mass to lift the life-support mass off the surface, no deadweight mass of rocketry to lift both off the surface (and accelerate them to escape velocity!), all of which need to be multiplied by lots and lots to get the total launch pad mass on Earth.

      • by icebike (68054)

        Or, maybe just perfect quantum entanglement com systems and drive those robots from Nevada in real time... ;-)

        • by Laser Dan (707106)

          Or, maybe just perfect quantum entanglement com systems and drive those robots from Nevada in real time... ;-)

          Even with quantam entanglement, no information can (currently/ever?) be transmitted faster than light.

          • by icebike (68054)

            Best current estimates are 10,000 times the speed of light as the MINIMUM speed of quantum entanglement.

            As Einstein called it: spooky.

      • by khallow (566160)

        A manned mission gets simpler and cheaper if it doesn't have to go in and out of the Martian gravity well.

        There's the matter of radiation shielding and not being able to add human bodies directly to the exploration effort. On the latter matter, humans are pretty good exploration tools in their own right.

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      This sounds like a recipe for turning the humans into maintenance and support staff for the robots.

      You say that as if it's a bad thing, meatbag!
    • by sznupi (719324)

      Thing is, there's not much reason to really try it here first - as you wrote, it would be more practical to just use humans.

      But outside of Earth it's different; what a human needs there is much more complex than simple "food and shelter and science tools"...all those things mean an infrastructure to keep him alive that dwarfs any required by robots. As a matter of fact, we rely on robots quite a lot more than on humans when in LEO and beyond... (look at the proportion between manned and unmanned (yes, those

  • 1. These are not the droids you are looking for.

    2. Why do they call them "terminators"?

    3. ???

    4. Profit

  • When the astronauts get out and begin their work, they can flip a switch to turn the vehicle into an autonomous robot that goes off to undertake projects on the planet.

    This is how the sequel to "Dude, where's my car?" begins.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Friday May 07, 2010 @02:43PM (#32131016) Homepage Journal

    An article about NASA where no celebrity is mentioned? Preposterous. I suggest Will Smith, since he's an acknowledged expert on robotics.

  • A better idea would be sending up robots to our Moon and having them build out habitats. When we get around to sending some people up there, they can just walk in to the new buildings and yell, "Lucy, I'm home!"

    • by Cyclloid (948776)
      I agree. Have the robots setup habitats/structures/buildings(/farms?) first so that you don't need to haul the oxygen, temporary structures, & etc in one trip. It is a similar at least one of the reasons as to why the ISS exists, because it would cost too much to haul up and bring down the living environments/labs/solar power panels every time a mission was scheduled in space.

      I would also recommend starting with the moon. Use the moon as a testing ground for use later on mars. Any discovery of wh
  • Obligatory HGG quote: Why stop now, just when I'm hating it?
  • Aside from the obvious fascination with anthropomorphic robots, the idea of smarter, semi-autonomous devices is attractive. Astronaut goes out of the lander/base, and deploys two or three bots with science experiments. They sit there and run, perhaps moving their arms/probes, and shifting their solar panels to follow the sun. The bots could be remote driven back to base, to be refitted. Need to upgrade firmware, or swap out spectrometers? No prob for the astronaut, who is on-site. No more Spirit stuck
  • without those bloody astronauts
  • From what I've read, there are lots of humans in NASA that would be willing to sign up for a one way trip to Mars. Maybe we should be considering this option a little more seriously.
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday May 07, 2010 @03:17PM (#32131644) Homepage Journal

    'We're working on a new use of these robots -- robots to support human exploration,' Fong said. 'NASA is now thinking, "How do you go about sending humans to the moon or Mars or elsewhere? How can you use the combination of humans and robots to do exploration better?"

    Actually, the most practical vision is the reverse: humans to support robot exploration of space. The main reason to send humans into space is simply to expand the range of our species beyond our planet. Not because we're better than robots in exploring and exploiting space, but because human achievement is the reason for even robots in space. And if we're to inspire humans on Earth to achieve, to include space as part of our "world", we need humans in space - even if we're just along for the ride.

    Where humans exceed robots is in our flexibility and adaptability. Robots will get into trouble in space, trouble that robots can't always get them out of. Humans alongside them, or at least up there closer to them, can troubleshoot and devise new uses and missions for the robots. That kind of work justifies having humans working there.

    Humans and robots are complementary in space. We should think of our role as making the robots do their job better. Which the robots can see as their expanding our human activities out there.

    • Well said, Doc.

      Without automation, without robotic proxies, we won't be able to deal with the challenges we face exploring the solar system.

      But without humans, we won't be exploring; just doing research from a distance.

      Both are necessary. We need to develop both in tandem, rather than arguing about which is more important.

      Not to gainsay you, but we should think of robots as extensions of tools we are already using.

      We already use unmanned

  • Why insist on 2-legged robots?!? 6-legged robots are a lot more stable; e.g. they can withstand a power failure without falling over. If you've got a task that really demands 2-legged capabilities, perhaps you could get one of the fucking astronauts to do it!
    • by khallow (566160)

      perhaps you could get one of the fucking astronauts to do it!

      Perhaps you ought to wait till the astronaut is finished first.

  • I'd encourage young people interested in robotics to stay away from NASA. NASA's record (as opposed to JPL's) is not good. NASA has spent vast amounts of money on space robots like the Flight Telerobotic Servicer without much success. Most of NASA's stuff is really teleoperators. And NASA projects take decades.

    Exciting work in robotics is happening. Look at what Willow Garage, Anybots, Festo, and Boston Dynamics are doing. That leaking oil well out in the Gulf is being fixed by teleoperated robots:

    • NASA's record (as opposed to JPL's) is not good.

      Uh, dude. JPL is part of NASA: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov [nasa.gov]

      • > JPL is part of NASA...

        Nominally, Yes. In fact, though, JPL is run by CalTech and is much older than NASA.

        • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

          JPL is a NASA facility operated by CalTech. While it originated before NASA (1949 I believe), it is currently a central fixture of NASA's unmanned exploration efforts, and isn't somehow distinct from it.

          I think the difference you're looking for is the manned program vs. the unmanned program. The unmanned program has diversified a lot lately - while JPL is still the leader in the field (I may be biased, I'm starting there next month), Ames and Goddard have both been doing a lot of impressive work lately as

  • 1. Start an open source project to write an auotmous Surveyor/Miner/Constructor Robot(S) control software.
    2. Start Paypal account to collect donations to pay for materials for construction and launch fees
    3. Wait 5yrs. Visit Moon Base!
  • Space robots were the only thing funny that came from Lowtax, and NASA is remaking it... ...well, maybe the only funny thing other than being beaten up by Uwe Boll. NASA can't be beaten up by Uwe Boll, can it?

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