Curiosity on the surface of Mars

Telepresence in space would reduce communication delays, scientists say

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Scientists from Arizona State University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory argue that “exploration telepresence” would allow scientists to explore the surfaces of other planets in real-time, improving the speed and quality of space research.

The enormous separation of bodies in space is perhaps most tangible in delays in video calls between astronauts and those on the surface of the Earth. When researchers operate Martian rovers such as Curiosity, they can expect to experience delays of anything from five to 40 minutes between the planets.

Curiosity’s primary goal is to learn about the environment of Mars, including whether Mars could be an appropriate home for life. It carries a range of instruments and can either be controlled by specific commands or semi-autonomously complete a set task.

“During the Apollo missions, the astronauts were making scientific observations and relaying what they saw back to scientists on Earth,” said Professor Kip Hodges, Foundation Professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“This worked reasonably well for lunar explorations, but the time delay is likely to dramatically reduce the quality and scientific value of such collaborations in exploring faraway places like Mars.”

This can mean that a single research activity on Mars using Curiosity can take a day or more, between deciding on an operation and receiving the final set of data.

In the latest issue of Science Robotics, Professor Hodges and his collaborators at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory describe the communications delay across space as “limiting” and suggest a potential new approach to space exploration: “exploration telepresence”.

Telepresence is already used widely on earth for procedures such as surgery and involves humans operating robotic systems from a near enough distance such that the delay is within the length of human reaction times. Applying this to space research could involve an astronaut entering the orbit of Mars and virtually exploring the surface in near real-life, through a robotic surrogate.

This could also reduce the need for sophisticated equipment to protect the astronauts and would prevent biological contamination of Mars.

The authors acknowledge that scientific research executed by astronauts working on the surface of Mars or other bodies in space is the “ultimate goal”, but argue that exploration telepresence is a logical stepping stone towards that goal.

“Today we do good science on Mars using long time-delay telerobotics, but we could do much better science much more quickly with humans on the surface,” Professor Hodges said. “Exploration telepresence would be a reasonable compromise until that day comes.”

“There are important targets for scientific exploration for which we currently don’t have the technology to land humans safely. Exploration telepresence could greatly expand the number of destinations where humans can do great science,” he added.

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