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Sunday, May 9, 2010


Astronauts need company: Should we send a rover or a humanoid?

If you've heard the arguments about whether it's better to send robots or humans on space missions, get ready for them to intensify: There are whole varieties of subarguments.

The subject doesn't impact our everyday life, at least not at the moment, but think long-term, people. We can't stay on the third rock from the sun forever. It's soon going to be time to move. Someone, or something — robots — are going to have to go check out the options.

Robots are much cheaper to send into space, say the pro-robo lobby. That's true. No one denies that the safety requirements necessary to send humans to Mars or the moon do make it far more expensive, but the pro-human lobby say we can adapt to unexpected situations: We are smarter. Plus, a human mission inspires the public more. So it's better to send humans. U.S. President Barack Obama seems to agree: Last month he announced that the United States would send humans to Mars by the mid 2030s.

Now Japanese scientists have come up with a hybrid form of the humans versus robots argument.

It goes like this. If we send a robot on a space mission, should we send a wheeled rover — essentially an automated car — or should we send a humanoid robot more like Honda's ASIMO?

These are the sorts of questions that mission planners have to wrestle with. A humanoid robot is already lined up to go to space. In September, NASA will send a humanoid torso on the last mission of the space shuttle Discovery before it retires.

The 'robonaut,' named R2, will perform mundane mechanical tasks inside the International Space Station, but the main reason to send the 140-kg robot into space is to see how it performs when exposed to cosmic radiation on board the facility. Also, humans will be working with R2, so it perhaps makes sense that the robot looks superficially like a human.

That's not the case with the proposal from an Osaka-based group of companies called Astro-Technology SOHLA. They announced last week that they intend to send a two-legged robot dubbed Maido-kun to the moon.

JAXA, Japan's space agency, had already decided that sending a humanoid robot to the moon was a waste of time and money, as the thing would find it hard to maneuver. If you're a robot, it's better to have wheels than legs on the moon surface. Perhaps the deep pockets of the SOHLA group will help JAXA change its mind. Sending a humanoid robot to the moon would certainly be a great photo-opportunity for SOHLA, but would it be scientifically useful?

Perhaps. Even if rover-type robots are more practical, it is likely that we'll need humanoid robots on manned bases on the moon and on Mars. Apart from certain jobs that I imagine would be better performed by a humanoid, there's the psychological factor to think about.

Although astronauts spend six months at a time on board the International Space Station, they are always within sight of home. Indeed, I've been loving the photos of Earth posted on Twitter by Japanese astronaut and national hero Soichi Noguchi. But if humans go on a 3-year mission to Mars, and start living there, where Earth is a mere speck in the night sky, they are likely to experience psychological discomfort, to say the least. Maybe humanoid companions could relieve that pain.

There is another argument to be made for sending robots — and not humans — to Mars: Robots are less likely to contaminate the planet. Put it this way: We've already ruined one planet, so let's please be more careful when we go to another one.

With good reason, all objects sent to other planets or moons where there is thought to be the possibility, however small, of life, are subject to strict planetary pollution laws. Everything we've sent so far — including NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity — has been sterilized, so that not even bacteria survive to pollute the planet.

Except that's not quite true. In fact, by a strict definition, Mars is already "contaminated" with Earthlings. It's not possible to completely sterilize something, and it has been estimated that several thousand bacteria survived the journey to Mars, stuck on the rovers.

Let's forget about a few little bacteria. If we send humans to Mars, however, as Obama has proposed, then we can forget about keeping the planet free from terrestrial life. Humans are stuffed full of bacteria: We're a walking zoo of billions of them, and there's no way we can stop them spilling out.

So what should we do? I wonder if we shouldn't just give up trying to preserve Mars the way it is and start sowing seeds there now. At the Martian equator at midsummer the temperature can get up to 20 degrees Celsius. Bacteria, cyanobacteria and lichens would probably grow there — if they can survive the intense ultraviolet radiation that bleaches the planet's surface.

There could be life on Mars, although it is most likely to be underground, where it would escape the ultraviolet. On the surface itself there isn't likely to be anything alive. So maybe, given that we're going to spoil the place with our bacteria anyway, we should start planting seeds for the future now. Who knows, something might grow, and the first humans to set foot on Mars might have something to harvest.

Follow Rowan Hooper on Twitter at twitter.com/rowanns. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human)."

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