Each robot has basic hardware and follows a simple set of rules. When it finds something interesting, it calls over all its Swarmie friends.
'Selfies' are all the rage these days. Every smartphone is attached with a camera and to the Internet, so it was inevitable that our vain species would take full advantage of the technology, snapping endless photos of cats and, of course, ourselves. Selfies -- or 'self portraits' to the uninitiated -- have become such a cultural phenomenon that Oxford University Press has declared 'Selfies' their word of the year. This may sound asinine, but Merriam-Webster Dictionary balanced it outand declared 'Science' their word of 2013
. In the spirit of fairness, I've combined the two words of the year and applied them to robots. Yes, robots. Robots that explore space, doing science. And just in case you didn't know, robots can be pretty vain too, taking snapshots of their junk for the whole Internet to see. To narrow the field down a bit, I've only selected robots that have photographed parts of their own structure, or attached components. I've also allowed the occasional robotic camera that was deployed for the sole purpose of taking a selfie
(nice effort, IKAROS).
The first robot that likely comes to mind is the undisputed
King of Selfies
, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The car-sized rover impressed the world with its selfie prowess when mission scientists released a stunning high-resolution mosaic of the rover in November 2012, only a couple of months after it landed inside Gale Crater. Curiosity achieved the feat by holding its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at (robotic) arm's length, taking a truly authentic "selfie." The world applauded this effort.PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera
But Curiosity certainly wasn't the first robot on Mars to snap its own picture, and it won't be the last. Although the Viking landers that touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 didn't have robotic arm-mounted cameras capable of taking a "true" selfie, they did their best.This view
from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.
PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars
Staying on Mars, some amazing panoramic shots and top-down self portraits have been attained by NASA's epic twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As you've probably guessed, commanding a robot on another planet to take self portraits isn't for fun (even though the outcome
a lot of fun), it actually serves a purpose. In the case of Viking and Curiosity, engineers on Earth can study the photos to see the condition of instruments on the robots' 'decks.'As shown here
, for solar powered rover Spirit, using its mast-mounted panoramic camera was very useful for capturing amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain. It was also great for keeping track of the build-up of Martian dust on its panels. In this photo taken in 2005, Spirit's solar array shines in the sun, having collected only a very thin layer of dust two years after it landed.NEWS: 9 Years Later: Remembering Mars Rover Spirit
Spirit's twin rover Opportunity soldiers on to this day, exploring the Martian surface after nearly a decade since landing. Jan. 25, 2014, is its 10 year Mars "birthday" (mark your calendars!). Currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater, helping to piece together clues of Mars' evolution (complementing the science being done by Curiosity), Opportunity is no stranger to taking its own photo. As Spirit and Opportunity were designed to the same specifications, Opportunity can also take 360 degree views and monitor dust build-up on its solar panels.Seen here
in 2011, its once shiny solar array is blanketed with a camouflaging coat of dust.NEWS: Opportunity Finds More Hints of Mars Habitability
No, robotic Mars explorers aren't especially fond of sefies, it's just that NASA has sent a lot of Mars surface missions in the past few years. Seen here in 2008, NASA's Mars arctic lander Phoenix took its own photo using a mast-mounted panoramic camera in a similar style to Spirit and Opportunity. It seems that the first rule of robotic selfies is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.PHOTOS: Phoenix Mars Lander's First Images
Now for something a little different. In 2007, the European comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta made close approach with Mars, coming within 1,000 miles of the surface, using the planet for a fuel-saving gravity assist. The boost in speed is allowing Rosetta to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- an encounter that is planned for 2014. But during the flyby, the spacecraft managed to snap this iconic photo of Mars from space. What makesthis view
so special is that Rosetta also caught its own solar array in the shot.ANALYSIS: Advice to Rosetta: Maybe She's Just Not That Into You
Leaving Mars, we now head to Venus where, in 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions and transmit data for two hours. In that time it also returned some color photos of the Venusian surface. In those photos, the hardy lander was able to capture some of its jagged landing gear at the bottom of the shot. It may not be perfect, but while sitting in a pressure-cooker with a limited amount of time to return valuable data, it's a superb effort.ANALYSIS: When the Veneras Challenged Venus' Hellish Atmosphere
In a video released by the Chinese Space Agency of the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010, the view shortly after launch was captured by a camera overseeing the deployment of the mission's solar panels.Courtesy of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla
, the video in its entiretycan be watched on Youtube
Whoa! What's that huge UFO that photobombs the shot?
Oh, that's Earth.ANALYSIS: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis
The Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission got a little creative with this selfie effort. In 2005, as it approached near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, with the sun at its back the mission snapped its shadow falling on the sunlit asteroid surface.
for leading me to Hayabusa!
VIDEO: NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry
In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a pioneering mission. Using only the sun's energy for propulsion, the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun, or IKAROS, probe set sail through interplanetary space for a January 2011 rendezvous with the planet Venus. After the solar sail was launched, two miniature wireless cameras were ejected by IKAROS as it deployed in Earth orbit,returning this admirable "hands free" self portrait
. Then, as IKAROS reached its destination eight months later, it took a snapshot of a crescent Venus (inset). (Thank youEmily Lakdawalla
for reminding me about these stunning IKAROS photos!)
Special thanks to all my Twitter buddies who engaged in Wednesday evening's conversation about robot selfies!
Can you think of more space mission "selfies"? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
The absolute least efficient way to get air, water and fuel into space is the way that we currently do it: by packing as much of it as we can into rockets on Earth, and then firing it off into orbit. If this is how we have to get supplies to the moon, or Mars, it's going to be ludicrously expensive and time-consuming.
A much better solution is to extract everything that we need from wherever we are: where there's ice (the moon, Mars and asteroids all have it), there's water, air with a bit of work, and with a bit more work, rocket fuel. Plus, there are likely other valuable resources scattered around all over the place, like minerals and metals. So, great, let's get on it! But first, we've got to find the stuff. And how is NASA going to do that? Robots.
The process of robotic mining itself is well established on Earth, and NASA holds an annual Robotic Mining Competition to help drive university-level research and innovation with robots competing to mine the most simulated Martian regolith (aka dirt).
Even private companies are working on off-world mining robots. The mining hardware is a work in progress, but prospecting for the good stuff (water, ice, minerals, metals, helium-3, etc.) is more difficult. We can get a sense of generally where resources are concentrated using multispectral imaging from orbit (or from aerial platforms, where atmosphere is available), but finding the best specific little spot to start digging requires exploration and sensing at a much finer resolution.
In order to figure out the best way to do this, NASA is taking inspiration from some of the finest natural engineers on Earth that aren't beavers. Or termites. Well, they're decent engineers, I guess: ants. Or even if they're not the finest natural engineers on Earth, they're great at using the fact that there are a whooole bunch of them (something in the 300 quadrillion range) to locate and exploit sources of food in their environment.
NASA's "Swarmies" robots are designed and programmed to forage like ants do. Each individual robot has basic hardware and follows a simple set of rules, and when it finds something interesting (a barcode on the ground, in this case, but you can slap whatever sensor package on them that you want), the robot calls over all its Swarmie friends to come help it out.
The current incarnation of this system only uses four robots, but it's been designed with scalability in mind, and it'll work for all different kinds of hardware. All of the benefits of swarm robotics apply here: you can deploy lots and lots of small, cheap robots that can work together to efficiently perform much of the work that would take one big, expensive robot a very long time to execute. And if you lose one or two individuals out of your swarm to mechanical issues, moonquakes, Marsnadoes, asteroid impacts, meteor impacts, meteoroid impacts, meteorite impacts, rogue AI takeovers, alien abductions, climate change, budget cuts, untrustworthy Nigerian princes, or an attack on the Deep Space Network by crazed wombats, the mission will still likely succeed. Hooray!
Next, NASA will add some robots to the mix that actually do know how to get some work done. The plan is to incorporate RASSOR, "a concept robotic vehicle evaluating designs for a future craft that could work on another world."
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