Caltech scientists are working on intelligent exploratory craft which could investigate alien worlds without human instruction. While missions to MARS can be remotely controlled, as we set our sights further afield the light speed limitation will cause significant problems. Even within our own solar system interesting targets like Titan and Europa are far enough away that signals would take an hour to get there and back. Cripplingly slow when you're carefully navigating "left a bit ... wait an hour .... left a bit more"...."
Professor Wolfgang Fink plans to have the probes make their own decisions. An upgrade to the Mars Orbiter-Rover tag-teams that have been so successful, an orbital vessel could survey the surface and deploy an airship over an interesting region. Wait, it gets even better! The dirigible then conducts a closer examination and can deploy a land vehicle to any research hot spots. No, you're not watching a Saturday morning TV show, it's a real proposal - and I for one am glad to see NASA collaborators taking hints from the Thunderbirds at last.
The current generation is exploring a slightly less far flung environment - a Caltech lab floor. A camera attached to the roof simulates an airship (scientists are really good at making approximations), conferring with three miniature rovers and helping them navigate obstructions without any monkey brains getting involved. The next test will be outdoors, involve a mini-airship, and likely be more fun than any such seriously important work has any right to be.
This isn't the harbinger of robot-dominated alien worlds that would then return to exterminate the human race. The only "intelligence" the probes display is limited to image interpretation and response. It could still be an important step on the way to Artificial Intelligence though. After all, evolution never set out to make us self-aware; survival simply encouraged better and better interpretation abilities until one of the things we could analyze was ourselves. As robot minds get more sophisticated, it might make sense to start building a Battlestar just in case.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
Automated probe stages http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/25496622/