We need ro­bots for eter­nal cruises

These tech­ni­cal mar­vels con­tinue to amaze, sur­prise and in­spire

Gulf News - - Front Page - ■ Daniel Britt is the Pe­ga­sus pro­fes­sor of as­tron­omy and plan­e­tary sciences at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Flor­ida. He has served on the sci­ence teams of sev­eral Nasa mis­sions, in­clud­ing New Hori­zons. BY 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 a space­craft. Ul­tima Thule is one bil­lion miles past Pluto, more than four bil­lion miles 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 lo­cal tem­per­a­ture is a balmy mi­nus-390 de­grees Fahren­heit.

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, for ex­am­ple, a per­son set­ting foot on the moon or trav­el­ling to Mars would. 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 re­pro­gramme and re­pur­pose them as new ex­plo­ration op­por­tu­ni­ties be­come avail­able. Ul­tima Thule was not even 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 and op­er­at­ing space­craft deep in the outer so­lar sys­tem. Since it took nine years to get to Pluto, this placed an ex­tremely ca­pa­ble ob­ser­va­tory deep into pre­vi­ously un­ex­plored re­gions.

Ro­bots can also carry in­stru­ments that hugely ex­tend the reach and sen­si­tiv­ity of our senses. Ro­bots can be built rel­a­tively cheaply and rel­a­tively quickly as op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­plo­ration present them­selves. New Hori­zons was de­signed, built, tested and launched in a lit­tle less than four years. For space­craft, this was very fast be­cause it was driven by the need to take ad­van­tage of a ce­les­tial free ride, the chance to bor­row some en­ergy from an en­counter with Jupiter that would ac­cel­er­ate New Hori­zons to­wards Pluto and cut five years off the trip.

Fu­ture ex­plor­ers

Fun­da­men­tally, ro­bots and ro­botic ex­plo­ration are all about tak­ing chances. Go­ing into the un­known, do­ing it quickly and for mod­est in­vest­ments, 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 more ca­pa­ble ro­bots or hu­mans.

Hu­man and ro­botic ex­plo­ration are syn­er­gis­tic and mu­tu­ally de­pen­dent. Part of the suc­cess of the Apollo mis­sions to the moon was their smart use of pi­o­neer­ing ro­bots. For ex­am­ple, 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. We take the big­ger chances with the ro­bots so that we can ex­plore safer and smarter with hu­mans.

New Hori­zons con­tin­ues its mis­sion of ex­plo­ration. Given the stag­ger­ing dis­tances, it will take al­most two more years for all the data col­lected dur­ing the short fly-by of Ul­tima Thule to be broad­cast back to Earth. Dur­ing that time (be­fore any next mis­sion for it is ap­proved), New Hori­zons will con­tinue ex­plor­ing the edge of the so­lar sys­tem by us­ing its in­stru­ments to ob­serve other Kuiper Belt ob­jects too dis­tant and too faint to be ef­fec­tively ob­served from Earth. And that’s just one of many ro­botic mis­sions 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.

But this is what ro­bots and ro­botic ex­plo­ration are good for: Go­ing to the ex­tremes of the so­lar sys­tem, cop­ing with the ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments and pro­vid­ing the new views of a so­lar sys­tem that con­tinue to amaze, sur­prise and in­spire.

Ador T. Bus­ta­mante/ ©Gulf News

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