Mars is slightly outside the AAA callout zone, which was a bit of a problem for the Rover mission. When you spend three-quarters of a billion dollars sending a vehicle to another planet it's a bit annoying when one of the wheels stops working. This actually happened. Luckily, NASA is by definition an organization composed of rocket scientists and they've figured out ways around this and numerous other faults and breakdowns in off-planet missions. But wouldn't it be better if breakdowns didn't matter?
That's Director of NASA Software Engineering Professor Mike Hinchey's idea. Instead of putting all our eggs in one or two phenomenally expensive baskets, he proposes building hundreds of hardened eggs and throwing them everywhere so that a couple of losses won't matter. Also, the eggs can work together to achieve complex tasks. And they can think for themselves and self-repair. And anybody who has soldiers for breakfast had better switch to cereal if they value their life.
This "swarm" approach is perfect for space exploration (which is kind of NASA's bag), as a crowd of smaller, simpler devices can cover far more ground than even the most complex single unit. Some scientists are trying to get the collective noun "constellation" of probes into use instead, but let's face it: no matter how nice a space-name that may be, a scuttling horde of small metal things is always going to be a swarm.
After that point Professor Hinchey's ideas get a little less related to reality. He believes that all future probes should be autonomous, self-sustaining and self-repairing. Just like people believe all cars should be self-driving and run on air, but we're constrained by what technology is actually possible. His list of requirements practically screams "nanotechnology", and while that incoming uber-science will certainly revolutionize space travel exactly as he predicts it isn't quite an option just yet. For those of you scared by the phrase "autonomous self-repairing robot swarm", remember that they'll be on another planet. Though the phrase "Martian autonomous self-repairing robot swarm" is probably worse.
Not that this insect-based approach is limited to the red planet. Even without the miraculous advantages of (so far) nonexistent nanotech, the scattershot approach of high numbers, small cost is perfect for other solar system destinations like the asteroid belt. We can map the bodies, pick out mineral rich locations, and when the self-building systems do arrive we'll know just where to send them.
We can't criticize Professor Hinchey's aiming at the impossible. He works for a group that put people on the moon, and that kind of awesome just doesn't happen if you're limited by constraints of what "exists" or "is possible". Where we can and must fault him is building up his robo-approach at the expense of manned exploration, where he downplays human ventures as expensive and too dangerous. That kind of talk would leave us staring up at that scary white thing in the sky at night. Getting us up and out there is the entire point of space travel. It's the most incredible achievement ever worked towards by anything that's every existed. If we can get some robots to prepare the way, cool, that'll help, but we must never forget the real goal.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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