Three cheers for our space ro­bots

The Timaru Herald - - CATALYST - Daniel Britt

Nasa’s New Hori­zons space­craft, now ex­plor­ing the vast re­gion of our so­lar sys­tem be­yond Nep­tune known as the Kuiper Belt, com­pleted yet an­other trip full of su­perla­tives: Re­cently, it cel­e­brated its clos­est ap­proach to Ul­tima Thule, the far­thest ob­ject ever vis­ited by space­craft.

Ul­tima Thule is 1.6 bil­lion kilo­me­tres past Pluto, more than 6.4b km from Earth, and ra­dio sig­nals take more than six hours to travel from the space­craft back to Nasa’s re­ceivers. At this dis­tance, the sun is just the bright­est star in sight, and the tem­per­a­ture is mi­nus-234 de­grees Cel­sius.

New Hori­zons, for which I serve as a mem­ber of the science team, is a prime ex­am­ple of the essence of ro­botic ex­plo­ration. Space ro­bots might not cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the pub­lic as much as a per­son set­ting foot on the Moon. But to­day they are op­er­at­ing at the fron­tier of science. And so they de­serve a mo­ment for our grat­i­tude.

We can de­sign ro­bots to sur­vive long cruises and the ex­tremes of ra­di­a­tion and tem­per­a­ture in space. And we can re­pro­gram and re­pur­pose them as new ex­plo­ration op­por­tu­ni­ties arise.

Ul­tima Thule was not dis­cov­ered un­til eight years af­ter New Hori­zons was launched in 2006. The en­tire plan­ning for the Ul­tima Thule en­counter did not even be­gin un­til af­ter New Hori­zons sped past Pluto in 2015.

The dis­cov­ery of Ul­tima Thule al­lowed Nasa to take ad­van­tage of a healthy space­craft in the outer so­lar sys­tem. Since it took nine years to get to Pluto, this placed an ex­tremely ca­pa­ble ob­ser­va­tory into pre­vi­ously un­ex­plored re­gions.

Ro­bots can also carry in­stru­ments that hugely ex­tend the reach and sen­si­tiv­ity of our senses. Ro­bots can be built cheaply and quickly as op­por­tu­ni­ties arise. New Hori­zons was de­signed, built, tested and launched in less than four years.

For space­craft, this was fast be­cause it was driven by a ce­les­tial free ride, the chance to bor­row en­ergy from an en­counter with Jupiter that would ac­cel­er­ate New Hori­zons to­ward Pluto and cut five years off the trip.

Fun­da­men­tally, ro­bots are about tak­ing chances. Go­ing into the un­known, do­ing it quickly and for mod­est in­vest­ment, and dis­cov­er­ing crit­i­cal data in un­ex­plored re­gions, is go­ing to be risky. Ro­bots do the risky ex­plo­ration of new re­gions to pave the way for fu­ture ex­plor­ers – ei­ther ro­bots or hu­mans.

Part of the suc­cess of the Apollo mis­sions to the Moon was their ro­bots. Nasa’s Lu­nar Or­biters mapped the Moon’s sur­face, Nasa’s Rangers got close-up views of the sur­face and helped per­fect nav­i­ga­tion skills, and Nasa’s Sur­vey­ors ex­plored the sur­face and prac­tised soft land­ings.

New Hori­zons con­tin­ues its mis­sion. Given the stag­ger­ing dis­tances, it will take al­most two years for all the data col­lected dur­ing the short flyby of Ul­tima Thule to be sent back to Earth. Dur­ing that time New Hori­zons will con­tinue ex­plor­ing the edge of the so­lar sys­tem by us­ing its in­stru­ments to ob­serve other Kuiper Belt ob­jects too faint to be ob­served from Earth.

And that’s just one ro­bot now ex­plor­ing our so­lar sys­tem. The In­Sight lan­der that ar­rived on Mars last year is lis­ten­ing for ‘‘Marsquakes’’; the Osiris-Rex space­craft is pre­par­ing to sam­ple an as­ter­oid; the Lu­nar Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter is map­ping our Moon; and the Juno probe is or­bit­ing Jupiter.

This is what ro­bots are good for: Go­ing to the ex­tremes of the so­lar sys­tem, cop­ing with the ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments and pro­vid­ing the new views that con­tinue to amaze.

Ro­bots are op­er­at­ing at the fron­tier of science. And so they de­serve a mo­ment for our grat­i­tude.


Nasa’s New Hori­zons space ro­bot nears Pluto in July 2015, in this artist’s im­pres­sion.

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