WASHINGTON As a presidential commission prepares its recommendations for the future of U.S. manned space flight, advocates of expanded robotic exploration of Mars are arguing that semi-autonomous operations are the best way to explore the solar system while developing new technologies that can be used on Earth.
In an op-ed posted on EE Times.com and in a separate interview, IEEE member John Merchant argued that expanded telepresence is a proven, affordable technology that can bridge that gap until a manned Martian mission could be launched.
Citing demonstration projects like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge programs, Merchant asserted: "We've got the technology to do these semi-autonomous operations" on Mars.
|The Martian plain as seen by Mars Rover Spirit|
As the U.S. shuttle program winds down and NASA ponders how it will continue to service the International Space Station, Merchant said he is concerned that NASA has few options on the table for future space exploration. The U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, headed by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, is expected to conclude that NASA lacks the funds for a manned return to the moon by 2020 much less manned exploration of Mars.
Merchant advocated telepresence, an expanded version of the robotic exploration now underway on Mars, as a way to fill the gap until U.S. policy makers set a new course for manned exploration of the solar system. Telepresence would provide humans with the ability to function on Mars as effectively as if they were actually there, the retired Honeywell engineer said. Human operators would control surface activities by a range of new Mars rovers through high-level commands, Merchant added.
"We need a semi-autonomous capability and operations" on Mars, he said.
NASA and European Space Agency officials announced details last month of a Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. The plan calls for launching a series of Mars rovers and orbiters beginning in 2016 through 2020. The unmanned space craft would conduct astrobiological, geological and geophysical investigations of the Martian surface. The initiative also will aim to "return of samples from Mars in the 2020's," NASA said.
The U.S. and European team will initially work on a joint architecture for the Martian missions, including the formation of a joint architecture review team, NASA said. While future Mars rovers are expected to have greater capabilities than current U.S. rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, space agency officials provided few details about how ground controllers would direct future missions or about what level of autonomy future rovers would possess.
Merchant urged policy makers to transfer a portion of the roughly $10 billion NASA spends annually on manned space flight to develop new telepresence capabilities. He argued that such a strategy would keep the space launch industry busy during the interim period by sending more capable rovers to Mars.
He added that transferring funds to telepresence research would also provide "a tremendous shot in the arm to [unmanned air and ground vehicle] development." The U.S. military is making greater use of both air and ground vehicles, and Merchant said greater investment would boost development of semi-new autonomous capabilities.
The Obama administration must grapple with these and other space issues once the presidential commission releases its report by as early as the end of August. The Augustine Commission, whose members include aerospace executives, commercial space advocates, engineering professors and two former U.S. astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, has one sub-panel examining "exploration beyond LEO," or low-Earth orbit. The panel, headed by Edward Crawley, an MIT engineering professor, is examining the U.S. science industrial base, "long duration operations" and future destinations.