Tag Archives: space exploration

The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

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This is a nice idea for an explorer. I’m a bit surprised it is in Popular Science, unless it’s an old edition, since the idea first appeared ages ago, but then again, why not, it’s still a good idea. Anyway…

The most impressive idea I ever saw for an explorer robot was back in the 90s from Joe Michael of Robodyne Cybernetics, which used fractal cubes that could slide along each face, thereby rearranging into any shape. Once the big cubes were in place, smaller ones would rearrange to give fine structure. That was way before everyone and his dog new all about nanotech, his thinking was well ahead of his time. A huge array of fractal cubes could become any shape – a long snake to cross high or narrow obstacles, a thin plate to capture wind like a sail, a ball to roll around, or a dense structure to minimize volume or wind resistance.

NASA tends to opt for ridiculously expensive and complex landers with wheels and lots of gadgetry that can drive to where they want to be.

I do wonder though whether people are avoiding the simple ideas just because they’re simple. In nature, some tiny spiders get around just by spinning a length of thread and letting the wind carry them. Bubbles can float on the wind too, as can balloons. Where there’s an atmosphere, there is likely to be wind, and if simple exploration is the task, why not just let the winds carry you around? If not a thread, use a balloon that can be inflated and deflated, or a sail. Why not use a large cloud of tiny explorers using wind by diverse techniques instead of a large single robotic vehicle? Even if there is no atmosphere, surely a large cloud of tiny and diverse explorers is more capable and robust than a single one? The clue to solving the IT bits are that a physical cloud can also be an IT cloud. Why not let them use different shapes for different circumstances, so that they can float up, be blown around, and when they want to go somewhere interesting, then glide to where they want to be? Dropping from a high altitude is an easy way of gathering the kinetic energy for ground penetration too, you don’t have to carry sophisticated drills. Local atmosphere can be used as the gas source and ballast (via freezing atmospheric gases or taking some dust with you) for balloons and wind or solar can be the power supply. Obviously, people in all space agencies must have thought of these ideas themselves. I just don’t understand why they have thrown them away in favor of far more heavier and more expensive variants.

I’m not an expert on space. Maybe there are excellent reasons that each and every one of these can’t work. But I also have enough experience of engineering to know that one of the most likely reasons is that they just aren’t exciting enough and the complex, expensive, unreliable and less capable solutions simply look far more cool and trendy. Maybe it is simply that ego is more important than mission success.

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The future of space exploration

Another step closer to Star Trek this week then. Great!

It is hard to do proper timeline futurology in space sector because costs are so high that things can easily slip by a decade, but it is pretty obvious even to non-futurists what sorts of things will come some time. Another robot landing on Mars this week brings the days of human landing another step closer. And as we all know, once we land on Mars, sci-fi tells us that first contact, warp drive and interstellar travel can’t be far away. Sometimes sci-fi is spot on, but it doesn’t get it all right. There are better ways of exploring the galaxy than building the Enterprise.

For me, one of the most interesting things is that NASA are losing dominance to private enterprise. It is private companies racing towards space tourism and asteroid mining. They often seem to be able to do stuff at a fraction of the price of NASA, which seems to suffer the bloated sluggishness and waste of most big organisations, although its achievements and importance to date shouldn’t be understated. Still, private companies still don’t yet have the budgets for missions like Mars exploration. But give it time, costs will fall and more capital will be available as commercial viability improves.

Space is really going to start developing in the second half of this century. The first half will be pretty minor by comparison. NASA says we might get the first human landing on Mars in a decade or so. Add to that a few bigger and better space stations and ‘space hotel’ in low orbit in the 2020s, maybe even a decent moon base by 2040. We won’t start asteroid mining till the late 2040s. The first space elevator should arrive late in the century, and space exploration will accelerate quickly after that. Mining trips and some distant exploration trips will be enabled by hibernation technology, along with long trips to get water from comets or moons. With water, materials and loads of advanced robotic technology, some asteroids could be developed into outposts and space colonies will start to form in earnest. We’ll start missions to some of the more worthwhile moons.

By the end of the century, there should be quite a few small groups of people dotted around the solar system. Although they will be there for a variety of reasons, their very existence creates a sort of insurance policy for mankind. If there is a global war, or a major asteroid strike or any of dozens of accidents occur that could wipe out pretty much all life on the Earth, having a few outposts will be useful. It means that humans might still survive even if everyone down here dies. But it won’t be just humans there. By the end of the century, many of the population will be AIs. They will be interwoven with human society but will have their own cultures too, plural, because there will be many variants of AI. These AIs will serve as both friends and colleagues, and as well as their own culture, will also act as excellent interfaces and repositories for human culture.

AI science will be the main springboard for space travel, yielding very rapid acceleration of technology development.  Physics won’t allow everything from sci-fi to be built,  and the timescales in sci-fi are often ridiculously overoptimistic, but real science and technology has a habit of making a lot of sci-fi look conservative. As just one example, the voice synthesis on the original Star Trek series is far worse than what we already have 300 years early.

Real science will enable a direct interface between the human brain and machines, and that enables the extension of human capability in every area. It also allows brain replicas to be made, and when realised by superior IT, they replicas will effectively be turbo-charged. In fact it is not impossible to get a factor of 100 million improvement before we push physics barriers. From another angle, we could get the equivalent of one human mind in a volume of 1/10,000th of  a pinhead. A lot of people could be copied and encoded in such a way, and stored for very easy transport. That miniaturisation could be the real basis of space exploration, not huge spacecraft. Sending your mind with a few nanobots to build a body for you and terraform a suitable environment could be cheap and easy compared to the alternative.

Scientists are already considering the possibility of making wormholes, and small ones would be easier and cheaper. Given huge acceleration of technology in the late century via these vastly super-human capabilities, perhaps we will be able to start projects to make real wormholes, through which could be sent some encoded minds and nanobots. A tiny capsule just a few microns across could be a tiny seed for an entire colony. Myriads of these could be sent off like spores, landing on suitable places and assembling a colony. I think that is how we will actually proceed. The spaceships we will soon send off to Mars with people in will be followed by several more decades of them, and that may remain the basis for local civilisation and enterprise, but for the long distance stuff, large physical craft may not be suited at all and using spores will be the next phase.

Spore-based space travel is 100 years away, perhaps a little more. That still makes it 200 years early.

Physicists like toying with ideas for propulsion too. Sci-fi uses a wide variety and many of these are possible and even potentially cost-effective. My own contribution is the space anchor. This locks on to the foundations of space itself and pulls the craft along as space expands. By locking and unlocking and using differences in curvature, craft could reach very high speed. There are a few details to work out still, but plenty of time. Space anchors can also enable easy turning and braking, one of the things that always seems difficult in space, given that parachutes and wings don’t have much effect in a vacuum. OK, needs work.