25 February 2007

The Near Term Future of Space Exploration

Robots can be built to survive in the harsh environment of space--to prepare the way for human explorers and settlers.
The robots are being developed mainly to carry out multiple complex tasks, such as assembly, inspection, maintenance, habitat construction, surface landing, and exploration in space and on planet surfaces. Perhaps their paramount feature is flexibility: The different modules can be connected to let a robot handle a variety of tasks, rather than have that robot dedicated to a single task. The traditional approach of building separate robots for separate tasks is no longer adequate for affordable space exploration, researchers said.

...."Each module is a complete robotic system and has a power supply, microcontrollers, sensors, communication, three degrees of freedom, and six connecting faces (front, back, left, right, up and down) to dynamically connect to other modules.

"This design allows flexible bending, docking, and continuous rotation. A single module can move forward, back, left, right; flip over; and rotate as a wheel. Modules can communicate with each other for totally distributed control, and can support arbitrary module-reshuffling during their operation."

Darpa is working on cognitive hardware architectures to allow these "forerunner robots" to make better decisions and be more independent. Darpa and NASA have traditionally produced technology "spin-offs" to the private sector. In the case of powerful computational platforms, the private sector is not far behind.

Humans have not evolved for survival in the environment of outer space or extraterrestrial planets. Humans do not grow crops and raise families on mountains above 17,000 feet, on the sea floor, or at the polar regions--we have developed neither the physiology nor the technologies we need to survive there.

After the space robots build the habitats with life support, energy generating facilities, food production facilities--who will follow? Most likely you will see cyborgs living full-time in space before you see non-augmented humans raising families there. Lower limb amputees could be fitted with artificial limbs that are far more functional in a micro-g environment than human legs. Artificial senses that allow cyborg space settlers to see a fuller spectrum of electromagnetic energy would vastly aid resource prospecting--to say nothing of the preservation of life.

Using artificially grown nerves for interfaces with neurochips, these cyborgs could interface with near-AI cognitive platforms, and maintain virtual telepresence in multiple locations.

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