On May 1st, 2009, after five years on the Martian surface, the Spirit rover got stuck in a patch of soft sand (where it would remain for the rest of its mission). On February 13th, 2019, NASA officials declared that Spirit’s sister – the Opportunity rover – had concluded its mission after a planetary dust storm forced it into hibernation mode about seven months prior. And in March 2017, the Curiosity rover’s wheels showed signs of their first break, thanks to years of traveling over rough terrain. Such are the risks of sending rover missions to other planets in search of discoveries that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.
But what constitutes an acceptable risk for a robotic mission, and when are mission controllers justified in taking them? As it turns out, a pair of researchers from the Robotics Institute‘s School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh have developed a new approach for weighing the risks against the scientific value of sending planetary rovers into dangerous situations. The researchers are now working with NASA to implement their approach for future robotic missions to the Moon, Mars, and other potentially-hazardous environments in the Solar System.
Update: The Analog-1 experiment was a complete success! Astronaut Parmitano completed all the requirements within the specified time frame (one hour).This test is the first step in validating the teleoperation technology.
NASA has been rather up-front about its desire to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars in the coming years. They are joined by multiple space agencies (such as the ESA, Roscosmos, the CNSA and the IRSO) who also wish to conduct their first crewed missions beyond Earth. However, what is often overlooked is the role teleoperated missions will play in the near-future – where humans and robots explore hand-in-hand.
For example, the ESA has embarked upon a series of experiments collectively named Analog-1, where astronauts control robots from space. Yesterday (Nov. 18th), ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano took control of a robot in the Netherlands from the ISS. This experiment and others like it will help prepare astronauts for future missions that will involve the exploration of hazardous or inaccessible off-world environments.
Everything dies, including our technology. But when we’ve hurtled a few thousands pounds of robotic instrumentation to another planet, it gets a little difficult to shut it down and clean up. What do we do when a mission has reached the end of its useful life?