We, robots

GCN Insider | Before astronauts go back to the moon ' or to Mars ' robots will scout the territory

Lunar Workout: NASA is testing two robotic vehicles in a desert crater near the Arctic Circle to get them ready for a visit to the Moon, and possibly a later mission to Mars.

NASA Photo

When robots figure into science fiction, they are generally cast as sidekicks to humans ' or at least humanoids. But many scientists figure robots are more likely to have the leading role in real life space exploration. The reasons are obvious: Robots can travel for a long time over vast distances without aging, they're not as fragile in hostile environments, and they can be miniaturized for more efficient space travel.

NASA hasn't entirely overlooked the human role in space exploration. Indeed, the agency is fully aware that a giant leap for robotkind doesn't carry nearly the same cachet when it comes to winning an expanded budget as a giant leap for mankind. Accordingly, NASA is planning to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.
But before the astronauts get there, robots will scout the territory.

Two NASA robots were tested from July 12 to July 31 in an isolated polar desert crater near the Arctic Circle to fine-tune them for the job of evaluating potential outposts on the moon and, eventually, on Mars. The four-wheel-drive robots are equipped with laser scanners and ground-penetrating radar.

Meanwhile, engineers at the University of Bath in England have taken another approach to robotic-explorer design. Rather than the wheeled devices NASA is using, the British researchers have designed two models of jumpers. According to a press release from the group, 'Jumping is a good way to move over rough terrain and is considerably easier to design than walking.' The jumping robots ' named Jollbot and Glumper ' also have another advantage: they're lightweight. 'The cost per kilogram of launching something into space is very large, so jumping robots, which are likely to be light in weight to maximize their own performance, are ideally suited from that perspective.'

One implication in this, of course, is that those of us who believe Earth is being visited by aliens would do well to spend less time scanning the skies for spaceships piloted by living creatures and more time looking for signs of miniature robots ' especially suspicious would be those you find hopping over hedges.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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