Telepresence, Androids, and Space Exploration

13 06 2012

Our culture is replete with examples of androids and humanoid robots in space.  From David in Ridley Scott’s brand-new film, Prometheus, to the iconic C-3PO in George Lucas’s Star Wars, androids and humanoid robots are often portrayed as our trusted servants and protectors, capable of tasks we ourselves cannot or will not perform. 

Further, the related idea of a person using a surrogate, technological body to survive harsh environments is nearly as old, most recently exemplified by the title character’s lab-grown hybrid body in James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

These notions are sensible ones for three primary reasons:

  1. Space travel and planetary exploration of any significant distance or duration presents a harsh environment from multiple fronts – psychological, physiological, temporal. 
  2. Maintaining a human form-factor means that these androids will be able to use the same equipment and vehicles as has been designed to accommodate the rest of the crew, a clearly efficient attribute. 
  3. It has been shown that human beings interact more comfortably in may cases with anthropomorphized machines – easing crew comfort.

Well, it appears that reality is finally catching up to these sci-fi archtypes (or, arguably, proving that by defining our expectations science-fiction often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roscosmos’s SAR-400

Russian telepresence android SAR-400 at a workstation. (Credit: RSK)

As detailed in a story from The Voice of Russia here, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has long been developing the SAR-400, a telepresence robot they term an “android.”  (Note: The definition of what qualifies as an android is still a little loose.)  SAR-400 is designed to act as an astronaut surrogate whenever possible, particularly during spacewalks, to reduce safety risks to the humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

While no plans to send a SAR-400 to space have been announced, this project is extremely similar to a beleagured NASA project of parallel design and scope that is already aboard the ISS.

NASA’s Robonaut-2

Robotics Industry Association President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA telepresence android “Robonaut 2.” (Credit: RIA)

The NASA Robonaut project, with a lengthy history dating back to conceptual work performed in 1997, is a telepresence robot sharing a nearly identical design with the SAR-400 that is intended to perform work in space and on planetary exploration missions.  (On an interesting side note, during the early 2000s Robonaut’s cosmetic “head” bore an uncanny resemblance to the highly-recognizeable Jango/Boba Fett costume helmet of Star Wars fame.) 

This culminated in 2011 with the launch of a test Robonaut-2 (R2) to the International Space Station.  While the robot has been configured to integrate with the station systems, the robot has seen little real use due heat-dissipation and other technical difficulties.  However, limited tests are proving favorable and increasing the likelihood that that future semi-autonomous telepresence robots will be considered part of the crew.

Robonaut project manager Roin Diftler is quoted as saying that their final objective is “…relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

Implications for human space exploration

In a very direct way, this technology reopens the classic debate about whether or not the future of space exploration involves astronaut human beings at all.

Opponents to human-based space exploration cite costs and logistical complications, while proponents note that human beings still exhibit unique learnining, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities necessary for frontier work that are far beyond the ability of modern artificial intelligences. 

Bishop (341-B), a benevolent android and space crewmember from the film “Aliens.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps, instead of replacing humans on the frontier, the future will be a hybrid approach as has been the case so far.  As R2’s program manager implied above, perhaps the ultimate solution is to cater to our strengths – in androids, an unblinking sentinel, able to perform repetitive or tedious tasks without tiring and work in dangerous environments without suffering the effects of stress; in humans – creative problem-solvers and pioneering explorers with the ability to innovate, and perhaps more importantly, to inspire.

In this light I’m strongly reminded of Bishop, the “synthetic person” artificial intelligence from the James Cameron film, Aliens.  A good guy strictly governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Bishop is shown to accompany space crews into unknown territory, operate equipment, pilot vehicles, perform analyses, reduce data, and save the day on multiple occasions. 

Might Robonaut-2 and the SAR-400 be the equivalent of a real-life Bishop’s distant ancestors?  Time will tell.  

However, in this character, science fiction has erected a sensible guidepost for what future android integration into space crews for the purpose of enabling human space exploration would look like.





Airships: A century from prototype to spaceflight?

24 02 2012

An airship that might have been, from "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Credit: Paramount)

Airships.  There’s a certain nostalgic thrill to the streamline, art deco aircraft heyday that nearly was.

To the point (and as illustrated above): the Empire State Building’s observation tower was originally intended to serve as a mooring point for airships.

Achieving the power of flight by harnessing a buoyant gas is simple, reliable, quiet, low-velocity, and (after shifting away from using an explosive gas) veritably safe.  -And to many’s surprise, it might soon take us to space.

USS Shenandoah, U.S. Navy ZR-1, under construction in 1923.

Early 20th Century

Many don’t realize that the United States had airships in military service, which were outgrowths of a German design reverse-engineered after World War I.

For example, from 1922-1923, the first rigid airship, ZR-1 USS Shenandoah was constructed.  Several subsequent military airships flew under the American flag prior to World War II until they became tactically obsolete.

Early 21st Cenury

Now, after decades of work, volunteer-based aerospace firm JP Aerospace has its eyes set on an orbital airship as a gateway to the stars.

Ascender airship being serviced. (Credit: JP Aerospace)

How does it work?  The system is essentially 180-degrees apart from the rocket-and-fanfare, minutes-to-space spaceflight that we’ve all become accustomed to.  Instead, two separate classes of airships and a transfer station in-between slowly loft cargo to orbit over a matter of days.

The process is something they call “Airship-to-Orbit,” or ATO.

Essentially, an airship-to-orbit spaceflight program represents finesse versus conventional rocketry’s brute force.

Though there are still engineering challenges ahead, JP Aerospace is powering through tests of their magnetohydrodynamic thrusters and are continuing toward a stunning run of 67 high-altitude balloon and sensor platform ascents.

So, a century from prototype to spaceflight?  It certainly looks possible.  And if there truly is merit to the airship-to-orbit concept, based on how quickly JP Aerospace has been able to achieve flight benchmarks on a volunteer basis, then just imagine what could happen with serious backing by a government space agency.

Food for thought.

Personally, I love the architecture.  There’s something about truly alien competition to conventional spaceflight providers that I think is sorely needed.

Ascender 6000 on approach. (Credit: JP Aerospace)





Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
 
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…




Blues in Space Predicted!

31 08 2011

There are a number of other space and spaceflight stories deserving of my attention, but I had to fast-track this one out.  Why the rush?  Frankly, I’m thrilled, for my previous prediction of blues in space has been proven true!

Astronaut Ron Garan and his blues guitar. (Credit: NASA)

In a fun “home video” piece, NASA Astronaut Ron Garan goes “missing,” and a search is made of the extensive International Space Station to find him.

Where is he holed up and why?  Well, upon hearing that the crew’s return home has been delayed due to the recent problems with Russia’s rocket launches, @Astro_Ron (as he is known on Twitter) retreated to the Soyuz spacecraft currently docked to the station, donned his shades, and began strumming up “The Space Station Blues,” an original(!).

In his own words:

“I wanted to do something light-hearted to let everyone know that we are all in this together, so I enlisted Mike Fossum to help me make a video poking a little fun at the situation.”

As far as I’m concerned, the advent of original blues on the space frontier marks this as a red letter day for space culture!  Way to go, Ron!

Now that I think of it, perhaps “The Space Station Blues” deserves a better treatment?  (Hmm…  I wonder if I could get the band back together for that one…)

So, as a 21st-Century Blues Brother in Space might say:

“It’s 190 miles to Earth, we’ve got a full crew, half a pack of supplies, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.  Hit it.”





Excalibur back in British Isles!

23 02 2011

One of the two Excalibur Alamz Limited (EA) space stations being delivered to the Isle of Man. (Credit: JCK, Ltd, IOM)

…commercial spacecraft manufacturer/provider Excalibur Almaz (EA), that is.  And they ferried two partially-constructed commercial space stations with them.

The Almaz Crew Module as premiered in Russia earlier this year. (Credit: Excalibur Almaz)

A primary competitor to Bigelow Aerospace on the commercial space station frontier, EA has leveraged 20th-Century Russian military space technology in a bid to accelerate a fully-functioning private spaceflight program to orbit.  Because it is based on preexisting technology, (which was originally known as “Almaz,”) primary elements of the spaceflight system have already been through flight testing, giving EA a distinct research and development (i.e., cost) advantage.  They’re currently working to update the Almaz space system.

Should EA’s number of flights grow to six a year or more, (according to their recent press release,) it would be economically-feasible for them to launch and sustain the legacy space stations on-orbit for government and academic research as well as space tourism.

If EA is able to complete their modernizations quickly, they’d be at a distinct advantage compared to Bigelow in that EA is developing both spacecraft and space stations as part of their program.

Bigelow is reliant on someone else’s spacecraft to reach their inflatable habitats.





Bigelow Aerospace accelerates station plans

17 12 2010

Sundancer, Bigelow Aerospace's proposed first habitable module. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Recently, two companies have arisen to challenge Bigelow Aerospace’s  domination of the commercial space station market.  Now, quietly, Bigelow has fired back where it hurts most: Timeframe.

It seems that the first to get a station to orbit will be in a position to pluck the ripest government and corporate space station user contracts.  In this light, Bigelow faces serious, direct competition against the likes of Excalibur Almaz of the British Isles and Russia’s Orbital Technologies, who have each come out and declared a target year of 2015 for launch and deployment of their own stations.

While before the economic collapse Bigelow’s target launch date for Sundancer was 2010, it should come as no surprise that Bigelow’s more recent target date for lofting human-habitable modules was also 2015.

Now, only a few months after Almaz and Orbital Tech announced their station plans, a quick check of Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer module page now lists 2014 as their targeted launch date.  Because Bigelow already has hardware built and launched, I believe them when they shift up a timetable.  The operations and capabilities of Excalibur Almaz and Orbital Technologies are a little more nebulous – I imagine their 2015 date is being optimistic.

Will either be able to up the ante on Bigelow and declare a 2013 target launch date?  Time will tell.  However, any competition that can accelerate the deployment of additional destinations in space, even by only a year, is fantastic in my book.

Ad Astra, space station manufacturers.  Ad Astra.





A Radioactive Astronaut-Hopeful (Space update)

20 11 2010

Me probing an old military well in the Nevada wilderness for geologic data.

By education and trade, I’m a geologist, having worked now in the professional world for more than six years getting my boots dirty performing hydrogeology, water resources, drilling, geomorphology research, and environmental contaminant transport and remediation work in some of the most remote territory this country has to offer.  However, in my push toward becoming an astronaut, one may wonder why I suddenly think it’s a good idea to be working as a radiological engineer and pursuing graduate work in Radiation Health Physics (in addition to my Space Studies work at UND).

Why not study something more direct, like Planetary Geology (Astrogeology)?

The answer, while seemingly obscure, is simple:  What does geology, outer space, the Moon’s surface, Mars’s surface, and advanced spacecraft power and propulsion systems all have in common?  Radioactivity.

Boltwoodite and Torbernite, uranium-bearing mineral samples. (Credit: Ben McGee)

On Earth, (and other heavy rocky bodies,) radioactivity is a natural occurrence.  Plants (and even human beings) all beam out radioactive gamma rays from a natural isotope of Potassium.  (This is prevalent enough that you can calibrate your instruments to it in the wild.)  Even more to the point, radioactive Uranium and Thorium are more common in the Earth’s crust than Gold or Silver.  These elements are crucial to determining the ages of rocks.

Now, go farther.  As we move outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field, (i.e., orbit, Moon, Mars, and everything beyond and in-betwixt,) cosmic and solar radiation are essentially the greatest hazards an astronaut may face.  Radiation shielding and measurement are of primary importance.

Illustration of a manned NTR exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. (Credit: Douglas/Time Magazine, 1963)

Farther still, once a spacecraft travels beyond about Mars, the intensity of sunlight is such that solar panels are inadequate to supply necessary power.  Nuclear reactors, (Radioisotope-Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs,) are necessary.

Plus, in order to get out that far (to Mars or beyond) in a reasonable amount of time, our chemical rockets won’t provide enough kick.  Instead, Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) are about the most efficient way to go, something I’m in the midst of researching in earnest.

Hence, in addition to having experience as a field geologist (for future visits to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.,) being trained to swing a radiation detector around, understanding the exact hazards radiation poses and how it works, and knowing your way around a nuclear reactor are all uniquely suited to space exploration.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional path, but it’s my path: Riding gamma rays to the stars.








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