Asteroid Gaspra

There is absolutely no doubt that to protect Earth, we need to be alert to dangerous Near Earth Objects. Additionally, as we move more into space, we need to take advantage of the potential valuable resources that many of those objects may contain. All of this calls for a more aggressive and more active space exploration program.

Right now, NASA is in the planning stages of sending astronauts to a nearby asteroid to do some early exploratory research about both controlling threatening asteroids and ways to find and extract precious resources from the non-threatening kind. All of this is good, but the most pressing question is should this require a human space mission?

Robonaut 2

In many respects, missions to explore both near and far asteroids, would seem ideal projects for robotic exploration. In this regard, robotics would be different from the robot-rovers that have made significant exploration history on Mars. Robots to explore and assess asteroids would be exactly like the type of robots that are being researched and developed by NASA.  One of these projects will be placing a humanoid style robot (Robonaut2) on the International Space Station during the next crew exchange.

Robonaut 2 will be demonstrating one of the key goals of NASA’s robot research and development program.  That aim is for humans and robots to effectively communicate in the process of completing a specific task or responding to a specific problem, discovery, or emergency.  This is an exciting move toward the sharing of human and machine intelligence (artificial intelligence)! It is also the threshold, in my opinion, to an entirely new paradigm of space exploration.

No, I am not saying we exclusively use robots instead of humans for space exploration. What I am saying is that we need to keep human activities to a broad range of interpretive research that benefits from human intellect and experience. As brilliant and versatile as we may develop our robots, not one of them will ever equal the immense capability of the human brain. That said, there are many projects that will benefit from robotic exploration that are still interrelated to human assessments and interpretations, but at considerably reduced human risks.

Oh, oh!  There it is, that nemesis; risk aversion (the desire to avoid uncertainty and/or failed outcome). Well the concern with risk aversion is not that it exists, but the degree  and depth to which it is practiced in space exploration. We need a certain level of risk aversion or we simply fail; however too much or misplaced risk aversion and we also fail. Robotic missions will enable us to tackle extremely risky missions that do not initially need a human presence. This can and should let us mediate the levels of risk aversion and to still reach out into challenging exploration projects; such as assessing both threatening and promising near earth objects.

I find the concept of robonaut explorations of areas of our solar system and beyond both exciting and realistic. As I have stated above, we need to conserve human astronauts for those projects and ventures that benefit from a human presence and intellect. The Moon, Mars, and perhaps one of Saturn’s moons are real candidates for human exploration. Exploration beyond our solar system will, in my opinion, be initially totally robotic.  By the time we are ready for an exploration of a definite habitable exoplanet, it will be initially carried out by robonauts. The immense distances, even if we are traveling at near light speed, mandate that we do initial explorations with robonauts. In those future times, the cognitive relationships between robonauts and astronauts will be so interwoven and complete that humans, in essence, will be the real explorers.

In Part  II of this blog series, we will explore design, development and application of robonaut systems. In Part III we will present a theoretical exploration model using robonauts, robotic rovers and astronauts. Please stay with us as we move ahead.


Both the image of the asteroid Gaspra and robonaut 2 are courtesy of NASA/JPL

Explore posts in the same categories: Deep Space Explorations, Enterprise, Humankind and Exploration, Robotic Exploration, Scientific Research

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  1. My apologies to those who are following this blog series. I meant to include the following resource link in this first blog in the series. It provides a set of very current comments, data, and recommendations regarding the exploration of Near Earth Objects. I will also be referencing this link in the summary portion of this series(Part V).

    Here is the link: http://bit.ly/cioZCW. It is a NASA generated set of documents.

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