Lithuanian works on new-generation maverick Mars robot
For Povilas Piartli, a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) intern from Lithuania’s Kaunas University of Technology, the moon, stars and beyond are just way closer than for us here. Having chosen the studies of mechatronics, the aspiring robotics wizard wants to get the most from his internship in Silicon Valley before setting off for globetrotting in search of a spot to make his dreams come true. The Baltic Times spoke to Piartli about his space endeavors.
Why did you choose studies of mechatronics? By the way, what is it all about? What do you find so fascinating about it?
Well, I had a hard time choosing what to study - I did not want to go fully to IT and I wanted to learn some mechanics. Electronics was also interesting, so I chose mechatronics- a hybrid of mechanics and electronics. Most people understandably don't know what mechatronics is all about - the easiest way to explain is that it's similar to robotics, but wider: robotics is a subcategory of mechatronics. What I find fascinating about it is that with this knowledge you can create any device, because any modern gadget contains a mechatronical system. As a study field, mechatronics also allows you to immerse yourself in it by doing projects very early - in my case, I started working on them the first semester by making a light-seeking robot.
How inspiring for a student from a tiny country like Lithuania is the possibility to experience firsthand from NASA?
I would say that the most important thing that I’ve learned is that the people at NASA are not some extraordinary geniuses – in fact, we could make similar gadgets in any country. What is the difference? The funding. In the US and some other hightech countries, they are given funds for their research and a decent wage - you don't have to worry about the living costs. For example, the robot that is one of a few projects in my lab, contains 24 motors, each costing 3,000 dollars. This allows the team to progress further, instead of breaking the project in parts and designing your own motors with sensors and controls.
What selection had you been through before snatching the NASA invitation?
The selection was organized by Lithuania’s Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology, MITA, and it took up four stages, with NASA organising the last stage.
How unique is the robotto-be-turned into-a- Martian-explorer that you’re working on? What can it do better than its Martian predecessors?
Well, to begin with, it does not have any wheels, it is sphere shaped and it rolls on the surface by changing its form. The main advantage of using the tensegrity structure is that the robot is a lot more robust, and the goal is to just be able to drop it down from orbit on some low gravity body - no parachutes, no retro-burners, no airbags are needed for it. You just drop it and it survives the harsh landing.
How does your ordinary day in Silicon Valley look?
Not really different from my life at home. I go to my workplace at about 10AM, because there is no strict schedule, I have lunch at noon and leave at 6PM. I’m used to staying in the facility until about 9PM or 10PM – it takes me only four minutes to get from the laboratory to my bed.
Was there anything in the research facilities that caught you off guard?
I guess the strangest thing was the security - every time we enter the territory we have to show our id and visitor pass. Also, they have a lot of security training - if you buy some equipment that could be used to harm someone, you have to fill in security protocols, which might be a bit too crazy sometimes.
Do you believe in life on Mars, on some of the satellites of Jupiter and beyond our solar system?
Talking about Mars, I don’t think we will find anything still alive there, however Europa (a satellite of Jupiter) might have a better chance, because it contains a lot of liquid water. However, there still is a question of nutrition sources there, which leads to another major questions: are they sufficient for a lifeform to exist there? So, in a way, there is only way to find out it – go there, drill the ice and check what lies (lives?) below it.
Do you think advanced intelligence in outer space poses more risks or opportunities for humankind? When do you believe we will hit the jackpot and make the first interplanetary contact?
Well, there definitely are intelligent life forms out there – the question is whether they are close or far away, and do they still exist there, or have they already died or maybe they are just being born, or maybe there are all of those options in different places in space.
In terms of risks or opportunities, it really depends on the life form - is it a warmonger, or not. The stronger will win (in the interplanetary battle) – I’d not be surprised if us, humans, would win, considering our history of wars and the nuclear arsenal we possess. The situation would be a whole lot more dangerous if the aliens had an antimatter bomb, or possessed weaponry that is of a completely different scale and power, unheard of to humans. Where we definitely are behind is in the lack of proper transportation -to get our bombs to enemy territory.
The opportunities from contact with benevolent aliens include new immense scientific knowledge, new ways of entertainment, and a dramatic shake-up of our understanding how the universe exists.
The interplanetary contact is really like a jackpot even - if we detect some radio or light signals out there, they likely have traveled for many light years, and it would take them just as much to get a reply from us. However, if we find some other method to communicate, such as quantum communication, it would stand a better chance. Due to these reasons, I would say any communication is not likely to happen soon unless we discover something completely new.
Instead of leaving for studies abroad after graduation from secondary school, you opted for a quite average Lithuanian University, Kaunas University of Technology? Why?
Any good, big-name universities would require me to pay for studies, or their courses would be in a foreign language. I did not want to go too far from my grandparents - I grew up with them - considering they might need my help, so I chose between Kaunas University of Technology and Vilnius Gediminas Technical University. The deciding factors ended up being on Kaunas’ side – they offered me a program in English and their campus is concentrated in one place. Said that, I cannot deny that I did want to go away from home, however, I am resolved to get most of my Kaunas studies.
I bet most of your former secondary school classmates left Lithuania, didn’t they?
They actually did, to be more precise, almost everyone who could speak at least some English, has left.
Those who did not speak enough English to be able to apply to study abroad, ended up studying in Lithuania. I would say that about one third of my former classmates are abroad.
What impression have you gotten of Silicon Valley? Does it look like an outof-the-world place?
It actually looks like just a normal town with some bigger office buildings. One slight exception is NASA’S AMES Research Center - it looks like a 1950 military base and it was actually used as a naval military base.
The biggest difference from most Lithuanian towns is that everything there is built with car owners in mind -the roads are also a lot bigger than what we are used to in Lithuania. Also, due to the large amount of high income workers, there are a lot of expensive cars, so seeing a few Corvettes, Lamborghinis, or Porsches one behind the other, is an everyday sight.
Did you meet any Lithuanians there?
I only met some other interns, however, in my lab there is an Italian and Moldavian and the previous lead of our project was of Lithuanian ancestry.
Another Lithuanian intern I know found a Lithuanian working full-time in his lab.
For many, NASA is all about space exploration in our solar system. When do you reckon NASA will start crisscrossing other solar systems?
It all depends on political will- if we really want to crisscross our solar system or anything further. To be able to do it, we need new types of engines - the current chemical engines have their limits and we are very close to them. So, we need something much more powerful - nuclear energywhich scares a lot of people. With NASA being an agency which relies on political support, the switch is unlikely to come soon. I am expecting more from the Chinese in terms of space conquest, because of their different government structure and their overall attitude in terms of science. But the US might change its stance when China starts stepping in that direction. If we really wanted to get somewhere and were willing to accept risks, we could do it in 10 years or so, similar to the moon race. If not, it will take a long time.
Where do you see your future? In Lithuania? Or perhaps NASA?
To begin with, I may not be deemed a patriotic person, as I grew up going back and forth between countries- my first 6 years I spent in Russia, and then I moved to Lithuania. I don’t expect to stay in Lithuania, however, I have some ideas about setting up my own company and selling my own robots which I see being sold worldwide - I don’t expect anyone in Lithuania to buy them. However, the production could be done in Lithuania, as long as the laws would set limits on the manufacturing amount.
I will be travelling as an exchange student to China for a semester after my NASA internship is completed to see how life is there. On the other hand, to work at NASA probably wouldn’t be what I want, because of the current stagnation in human space travel, for example. Because of the uncertainty, I’m currently traveling around the world checking out countries in search of interesting opportunities.
Do you believe the funding young talented scientists and researchers can count on here are enough to keep them in Lithuania?
No, not at all. In terms of funding, we have a big problem in Lithuania, because, if I wanted to live normally off a researcher’s wage, it would not be possible. Unless the situation changes, I do not expect many students choosing the path of a researcher in Lithuania.
National selections for internship at NASA are organised and financed by the Science, Innovation and Technology Agency(mita). Internships are sponsored with funding from the Ministry of Education and Science.
Povilas Piartli is a NASA intern from Lithuania’s Kaunas University oftechnology