Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Mars Water Discoveries Loom Huge:: a brief synopsis about the potential for life on Mars, and the plans NASA has to discover it.

Recently, I've had fruitful discussions about the roll of robots in space exploration to the basic conclusion that human exploration is over-rated.

The idea is that spending $20-80B on anything is going to produce new science. The question is really what that science will be about. For Apollo, we got new materials and tools and a host of other technologies. We also got plenty of inspiration, which is good for the economy in terms of the scientists you create for the future, who are now excited kids.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really pay the bills. To spend the massive amounts of money on space, we should look for technologies which would have a huge impact on life here on earth.

Considering the value robotic autonomy would bring to a mission to Mars, where tele-operation isn't feasible for large missions because of the light-speed delay, we should continue pushing for more robotic power for NASA.

BUT, there is a huge benefit to all of society if we could solve problems necessary to have 100% robotic exploration on Mars:

The Grand Challenge is about offroading at high speeds in unknown environments. Large distances traversed on Mars would need to use technology which solves this problem. This is one obvious example.

Another would be the quality of manipulators/sensors and coordinated robots necessary to build a base on Mars or the Moon, as a preliminary mission preceding manned exploration. This would directly map to large scale construction projects here on earth. The barriers in buying a home would go down, and the ability of a developing nation to expand its infrastructure quickly would increase, if cheap robotic construction were available.

Also, scientific discovery could be accelerated with technologies that let robots postulate hypotheses, run experiments, and confirm results. This relates to work here and here. The idea of our society approaching a technological growth singularity, where we advance faster than our ability to track that advance, could ride on this wave.

I could go on, but the point is that the benefits of space exploration by robots needn’t be limited to what we learn about space and the other planets. The technology would yield immense benefits to real problems here on earth.
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