From autonomy to reduced time delays, scientists are researching ways to do more with robots on Mars.
Since 1976, when the Viking 1 and Viking 2 landed on Mars, robots have explored, analyzed and photographed from the planet's surface.
Controlling these devices has always posed a few challenges. Radio signals take about four minutes to reach Mars from Earth, making every robotic movement a delayed reaction. Another problem is that these robots, for all their strengths and technological advances, must have every minute aspect of movement dictated by a human.
Recent experiments seek to change that. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are developing robots that have some autonomy and can respond to real-time commands.
Astronauts from NASA and ESA have recently performed tests manipulating the NASA K10 rover from the International Space Station. The astronauts sent commands to K10 as it moved over a landscape simulating Mars' surface.
The K10 stands out from previous robots for its ability to make decisions on how to best follow a command.
For example, an astronaut could issue a high-level command for K10 to move to a location. After analyzing the surrounding environment, K10 would determine the movements it would need to make to move to the specified location without bumping into objects along the way. It reduces the need to have every single movement controlled by human input.
This also solves some of the latency problems that come from being so far away in space. Astronauts could orbit Mars; issue commands to robots that would only take seconds to receive and perform tasks in near real-time.
Robots would be useful for performing laborious tasks better than humans can, since they can operate under the harsh conditions on Mars' surface, are stronger and don't fatigue as humans would.
According to University of Texas astronomer Dan Lester, half of the cost of any manned mission to a planet comes from managing the descent to and departure from a planet's surface.
A mission where astronauts could deploy robots to collect and analyze soil samples while orbiting Mars would not require this overhead and would avoid latency issues. This technology would also be critical to any human exploration of Mars. Robots could be deployed to build a station before humans arrived at the surface.
A lot of advances have been made since the first attempts to explore Mars started in the 1960s. Just getting to the planet is a challenge, since you have to target where the planet will be about five months after launch. While improved robots will be able to do more than previous ones could, it still seems that Elon Musk’s dream of settlement on Mars is a long way from becoming reality.