When NASA officially ended the space shuttle program in 2011, it seemed as if the death knell for SS space exploration had sounded. Then the much-ballyhooed entry of billionaire space geeks, visionaries, and adventurers like Elon Musk and Richard Branson kindled dreams of a new era of private space travel. But when President Trump officially signed the Space Force into law in December 2019 as the sixth independent branch of the US military, the union between the space exploration, the military, and the federal government was restored.
But this new age of space exploration will be far different than that imagined and inaugurated by President Kennedy at the height of the US-USSR space race. And that difference extends far beyond the introduction of commercial space flight. Perhaps the most significant, and most important, difference is the role that robots will play in the future of space research. Read on to learn more!
The use of robotics technologies in space exploration, of course, is nothing new. Indeed, space travel and research would never have been possible without them. But significant advances in artificial intelligence, drone technologies, and remote communications are dramatically increasing the functional capabilities of space robots.
These new robotics technologies are changing how space research today is done. Take, for example, the new fleet of unmanned rovers, which are already yielding stunning new insights into the atmospheric conditions and topographies of other planets.
For example, in 2012, the Mars rover, Curiosity, detected the presence of atmospheric gases that may indicate, or support, life on the red planet. That includes not only methane, a key byproduct of microbial activity, but also oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen, the principal components of Earth’s atmosphere.
Curiosity’s findings have even prompted NASA to continue its unmanned explorations with the express purpose of detecting signs of life on the surface of Mars. In 2021, a new Mars rover will touch down in Mars’ Jezero Crater. The rover is programmed to conduct state-of-the-art spectrometric analysis of the crater’s soils and rocky deposits to seek out biosignatures, such as the presence of cyanobacterial-supporting carbon deposits.
Most exciting of all, the new rover will be a step up from Curiosity, because of its capacity for geochemical analysis below the soil surface.
It’s not just the new fleet of planetary rovers that will be doing the heavy lifting in the near future of space exploration. Humanoid robots are also being developed by national space programs the world over.
From Russia’s “Fedor” to India’s “Vyom Mitra,”, humanoid robots are increasingly being used to conduct research, support manned missions, and substitute for humans on missions that simply aren’t feasible, or are just too dangerous, for a manned crew.
No doubt about it: drones are changing life on earth today. From giving kids of all ages a cool new hobby to optimizing mapping and surveillance capabilities to speeding package delivery to plaguing pilots on take-off and landing and homeowners seeking a little privacy, the agonies and ecstasies of drones are well-known today.
But it may well be in space that drones achieve their highest potential. Researchers in the United States and Japan are currently developing new micro-drones modeled after terrestrial insects and designed expressly for interplanetary research.
For instance, the new “Marsbees” are designed to emulate the flight of Earthly bumblebees but with outsized wings capable of carrying sensitive data sensors into the most promising but previously inaccessible nooks and crannies of distant planets. These mini-drones are light, more resilient, and far more utilitarian than their bulkier, ground-based predecessors.
The Marsbees will be used not only to produce more sensitive and accurate maps of the Mars surface but will also collect data on the atmospheric conditions of the various regions of the Red Planet across time. Best of all, the smaller, lightweight Marsbees are capable of being carried in large quantities on space probes and rovers.
Large “swarms” of Marsbees can be dispatched from a single rover to virtually every corner of the Red Planet, each “bee” independently controlled and programmed to collect discrete target data. That’s going to make planetary research far more efficient and far less risky, as now the success of a mission won’t hinge on the operation of a single probe or rover. If one “bee” bites the dust, there can be a dozen others that could take its place!
As vital a role as robotics is playing in the support of unmanned space missions, it is perhaps in the area of healthcare that these technologies will do their most important work. Advances in telemedicine, for instance, aren’t just increasing access to healthcare for patients on Earth, but they’re also making it possible for space crews to receive state-of-the-art healthcare in real-time from doctors, nurses, and specialists on the ground.
In addition, space crews now have the ability to carry with them advanced health technologies, with more innovations forthcoming. For instance, researchers are currently at work on the development of “blood nanobots,” which are intended to inaugurate the next generation in disease prevention and treatment. For crews on long missions, as well as those who face serious health emergencies while in space, these tiny little artificial blood cells may well mean the difference between life and death.
Space-based medical research is also promised to save millions of lives on Earth. The study of bacterial growth in microgravity has already provided profound insights into the behavior of infectious organisms, which have in turn led to significant advances in the treatment and prevention of communicable diseases.
When it comes to robots in space, the future truly is now. From the dispatching of humanoid robots to support or substitute for humans in space exploration to the development of rovers and drones to enhance our understanding of atmospheric and terrestrial conditions on other planets, when it comes to the potential of robots to advance our understanding of space the sky really is no limit.