April 9, 2020

27.05.10: A New Resident for the ISS.

The final flight of shuttle Discovery STS-133 will carry a new permanent resident to the station; a robotic assistant known as Robonaut 2.  A joint NASA-General Motors design, Robonaut 2 looks like a life-sized Micronaut and will carry out routine tasks around the International Space Station. Currently undergoing testing at the Johnson Space flight center, Robonaut 2 will initially be tethered to the Destiny module aboard the ISS, although it (he?) will eventually receive more autonomy as proficiency increases. Robonaut 2 will perform such routine maintenance tasks as cleaning, housekeeping and setting up experiments. No word has been given if Robonaut will do any external station work, but of course, such a hazardous environment would be well suited to it. Arrival of Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS will be followed by a lengthy checkout in zero-g. Robonaut 2 may have a humanoid appearing upper torso, but will be able to interchange (Transformers fans take note) with a variety of lower bodies; the ISS version will perhaps sport one anchoring leg, but wheeled planetary rover bodies are envisioned. “R2” (we can hear the bad late night jokes now!) will have a 40 lb payload capacity, and a grasp of 5 lbs per finger. And before you comment that “objects don’t have weight in space,” let me remind you that they still have inertia. (Bazzinga!)

So, what will the astronauts think of this “robo-butler?” Will they name it, pose for pictures with it, and/or play chess with it? NASA has no official plans to make the robot interactive, although Robonaut Project Manager Ron Diftler says this would be relatively easy to do. And it would also provide good PR for NASA, at least until folks start worrying that their Roombas and Blue-ray players might rise up. Still, instead of a showdown scenario such as the one with Hal 9000 portrayed in 2001, Robonaut may prove to be an astronauts’ greatest ally, such as in last years’ indie flick Moon.  Versions of Robonaut may be common place and even mandatory residents in the spacecraft of the future, as we move beyond Low Earth Orbit and out into the solar system… can’t you just hear the call, “R2, try and increase the power…”

07.11.09:Attack of the Lunar Rovers!

NASA plans to send new hardware back to a familiar place; the Moon. Specifically, scientists at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona are studying the hugely successful rover activities on Mars to see if they can be emulated in a low-cost fashion on the Moon. It isn’t generally known that much of the Moon is largely unexplored from a ground-level perspective; the early unmanned Surveyor-style landers in the 60′s were stationary, and the Apollo astronauts were restricted to nearside, equatorial landing sites. Intelligent lunar rovers would allow for extensive surveys of unexplored areas such as the South Pole Aitken Basin, one of the largest impact basins in the solar system. Rovers could also scout out future manned landing sites as well as search for that treasure of treasures; water. Unlike the Martian rovers, the signal round trip is negligible, thus allowing for near real-time control. So, when might we see this new breed of lunar robots? Well, NASA has unofficial plans to place its first rover in 2014. The Chinese however, may beat us to tasting lunar dirt with the Chang’e-3 mission in 2013…who will win the battle of the 21st century lunar rovers? Stay tuned!

03.11.09:A Mars Rock in 3-D!

Break out those cheesy 3-D glasses… a few weeks back we reported on a new meteorite discovered on the surface of Mars. Opportunity spotted the out-of-place stone on July 18th of this year, and NASA engineers rerouted the rover for a closer look. Named Block Island, it isn’t the first extraterrestrial rock discovered on Mars, but weighing in at an estimated 650 pounds, its the largest found to date. Beyond looking cool, 3-D anaglyphs actually serve the purpose of allowing engineers to interpret what the rover sees. Another interesting fact gleaned from this new Mars space rock is that it suggests that the earlier Martian atmosphere had to have been thicker to cushion the incoming meteor and form the ablation pits we see today. Enjoy!

20.10.09: Free Spirit!

The Mars spirit rover is in dire need of a tow truck. Like a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, the tiny rover has found itself stuck since earlier this year,  about two miles southeast of its original Home-plate landing site. (Was Wollowitz to blame?) Bouncing to rest in January 2004, the twin rovers of Spirit and Opportunity has been defying all expectations and have become the rovers that simply refuse to die. While ensconced in martian soil, Spirit has taken the opportunity (catch the bad pun?) to examine its new home, dubbed Troy. The area appears to contain basaltic & sulfate rich sand layered in various hydration states. Scientists at JPL can console themselves that Spirit’s sand trap home is at least scientifically interesting. In addition, Spirit has been plagued by a gimp front wheel, which has forced engineers to drive it backward, dragging the faulty wheel instead of plowing it forward. Scientists have been simulating extraction in a sandbox here on Earth, and real movement on Mars is expected to begin sometime in early November. Dust storms have cleared the solar panels of dust, so with any luck the batteries will operate at their peak. Now is a good time to start following the rovers via Twitter…Free Spirit!

06.10.09: A Martian Meteorite: The Sequel?

Less than two months after its first record breaking find, NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity has discovered what appears to be a second true rarity; another meteorite on Mars. Far surpassing their original 3 month primary missions, the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity have exceeded all expectations and are now in their fifth year of operations on the Red Planet. They have been hobbled by software problems, dust storms, and gimp wheels, but these spunky robots refuse to die. Opportunity was rolling across Meridiani Planum en route to Endeavor Crater about seven miles distant when it first spotted and analyzed the 2-foot long rock now dubbed Block Island, the first extraterrestrial rock positively identified on another world. Now, on October 1st researchers have spotted another rock that looks decidedly out of place on the martian landscape; dubbed Shelter Island, this pitted stone is about 18” inches long and also exhibits a smooth polished surface. Of course, the presence of two meteor falls this close together raises the question; are the two stones related? Or are “Martian meteorites” more common than we might presume? Stay tuned!