1. What is it About
You are standing on the surface of Mars and are wondering how much effort it took humanity to get this far. In front of you there are three domes. One is your habitat, the other is used to extract water from the ice found in the rocks underneath and the third is the amazing BioGenDome, the eco system that supports life, you and is the main reason you are on this planet.
It took several spaceships, many missions and a lot of engineering to set them up. It’s been many year since that historic day when men set foot on Mars. A lot has happened since then. It still took anywhere between 6 month to two years for a round trip from Earth. The long term residents had to make this place like their home. Most of the difficulty wasn’t the lack of resources or day-to-day survival issues, though these had to be addresses anyway. The biggest problem was psychological. It could be very lonely here. With just a handful of people, there wasn’t much to interact with. At least you can be sure of one thing now. This mission, this whole colony, wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t because of the robots. They made all the difference. Everybody thought that the robot’s most important use on Mars would be to explore, make geological and biological discoveries or help us make the domes. Instead it turned out that they were far more useful as companions. We use them like pets. It’s wonderful. They are quite intelligent, though they are really like pets because sometimes they don’t understand the most obvious things. Either way, we love them. They keep us happy, engage us mentally and emotionally and it always feels that they know us better than ourselves. They make this place much more bearable. Actually it’s quite enjoyable here. “Hey R. Andy, where have you been all this time. I was starting to get worried…”
2. Where is the Fun
- Imagine being able to walk on an alien planet, with Earth in the sky and a whole world to explore. Imagine discovering life and wanting to know how it all happened.
- A colony on Mars, or any other moon or planet, will become a scientific research centre capable of carrying out novel research experiments. Originally International Space Station was also considered to become significant as a lab-in-space. However, this proved to be too expensive for what it provided. A base on another planet is entirely different as it will be a lot cheaper to operate, expand and maintain.
- Find out, once and for all, if life can be found on other planets such as Mars. If life is found, our world view might significantly change. It will also have a large impact on various religions which need to come up with new explanations, if they can.
3. What are its Applications
A colony on Mars can lead to may experiments that have been a dream for humanity. In fact just about any field can benefit from this exercise. The following are a few examples:
- Ecological experiments & ecosystems
- Geology and mineralogy
- Robotics on land, air and in orbit. In particular collective robotics with cooperative robots working together to achieve a task.
- Life and biological experiments
- Psychological experiments
- Physiological experiments
- Planetary research
4. How Developed is it
Due to incredible interest in space technologies generated in the 70s, it was long predicted that will be having lunar and Mars colonies by the turn of the millennium. Unfortunately, we are quite far from that dream. We still haven’t visited Mars and it is unlikely to happen sooner than 2030 by current estimates. For example, NASA plans to send humans to mars by 2031. A permanent base on Mars is still only a concept on paper and will take many years and sustained planning to succeed.
Europeans are planning to send their first robot to Mars by 2014 (as it is currently planned), while Americans are planning to send larger robots, dubbed Mars Science Laboratory, by 2010, and Mars Sample Return by 2020. As with the nature of science missions, these schedules are always subject to change. Chinese, on the other hand, are planning to go to Moon. They have schedules to send an orbiter by the end of 2007, a lander by 2012, and humans by 2020 or 2024.
A colony on Mars is still a sci-fi concept.
5. How Can it be Improved
When looked at carefully, it is easy to see why planetary expansion hasn’t advanced as expected. With the initial curiosity out of the way, there wasn’t much to go back for, either to get more resources or more knowledge. The cost was simply too high. On the other hand, Mars is far more interesting than Moon, but is simply too far away. Many operations that were performed on Moon were remote-controlled from Earth. This is not possible due to 7 minutes round trip for telecommunication signals to go from Earth to Mars and back. As a result, most of the activity should be carried out with intelligent robots. Currently, robots are not advanced enough for most of the things we like them to do when they are there. Although robots have been custom designed for planetary missions, they are often too expensive and too conservatively designed. As a robotisist, you always get a feeling that you are trying to design a robot capable of running, when you have never designed a robot that even crawls. Space is a harsh environment which imposes many limitations on robots. The correct approach is to advance robotics on Earth to the point that we can expect them to perform intelligent tasks naturally in controlled and safe environments. Then take that design and make it suitable for the harsher environments of space.
Robotics on Earth is slowly progressing. Once robots become mainstream, it will be much easier to take them with us to space. By then we would have worked out how to get them to cooperate with each other, how to get them communicate with us, how to command them, how to maintain them mechanically, how to update their software seamlessly and above all what to expect from them. Currently we don’t know many of these and the current attempts at robotics in space will be more of an academic exercise than using robots to actually perform any meaningful mission.
6. What Does it Lead to
A colony on Mars may have many implications. It will certainly lead to many advances in science and will expand our knowledge about the universe. Once a colony is established, performing many smaller experiments becomes cheaper and more practical. In 2006 when a couple of NASA robots were exploring Mars, Steve Squires, the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) commented that “It takes MER a day to do what a field geologist could do in 45 seconds!”. Let’s hope we can improve that performance when the robotics field really takes off.