Robonaut, meet astronaut. Image: NASA

Astronauts in Orbit Around Alien Planets Should Explore Surfaces With Robots and VR

Becky Ferreira

Becky Ferreira

“The historical presumption is that exploration means ‘boots on the ground.’ But we’ve gone way beyond that.”

Robonaut, meet astronaut. Image: NASA

When we imagine crewed missions to worlds beyond Earth, we tend to presume they will involve landing humans on alien planetary surfaces. We want to see the first footprints in the red soil of Mars, for instance, or to return astronauts to the Moon to wander the lunar wilds.

An article published Wednesday in Science Robotics challenges this narrative and offers up a significantly safer and cheaper alternative—"exploration telepresence." Led by Dan Lester, a research scientist at the US consulting firm Exinetics, the piece explores the idea of putting telerobotic sensory components on the surface of alien planets, which would be operated in real-time by crews orbiting those worlds.

"Exploration telepresence is about putting human presence and activity where it's really hard to put humans," Lester told me over the phone.

"I would certainly never say to do it instead of landing," he added. "I think landing humans [on other planets] would be wonderful. What I'm saying is that this is a strategy that ought to be thought about as we move in that direction."

Concept art showing telerobotic hosts for an orbital human crew on Mars. Image: NASA/GSFC

VR and other immersive technologies could allow astronauts to perceptually voyage to extraterrestrial surface environments via robotic stand-ins, without incurring the enormous costs and perilous risks of physically touching down on these worlds.

To some extent, scientists already do experience the perspective of interplanetary robots, such as NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, which has beamed back thousands of photos to Earth. But there's a large communication delay between Earth and its neighbors, known as "latency." Radio signals take anywhere from four to 24 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, for example, making real-time immersion into Martian surroundings impossible. Putting astronauts in orbit around nearby worlds would close that temporal gap.

"Let's do scuba diving in the methane lakes of Titan"

Interplanetary telepresence would also broaden the horizon of human space exploration beyond traditional destinations like the Moon or Mars. Venus, the dynamic world closest to Earth, has been consistently overlooked as a target for crewed spaceflight because its hellish surface conditions would demolish a human body. But astronauts in orbit around Venus—or any number of other alien worlds—could operate mobile, dextrous robots remotely, live through their sensory data, and share those observations with the public back on Earth.

It's the kind of idea that lends itself to colorful speculation. "Let's do scuba diving in the methane lakes of Titan," Saturn's largest moon, Lester suggested. "You're never going to put a human down there, but you could go in orbit around Titan, and send your scuba-diving robot there. You could do all sorts of cool stuff."

The approach would have myriad applications for space tourism, public outreach, and commercial ventures. Audiovisual feeds from planetary surfaces could be adapted for VR platforms on Earth, allowing anyone to walk a mile in the shoes, or wheels, of an interplanetary robot.

Read More: Scientists Can Virtually Wander Around Mars for Miles with HoloLens

As cool as it would be to deploy high-tech VR-equipped robots on an alien surface, many space advocates are likely to think telepresence is less satisfying than landing actual people on other worlds. Why travel all the way to the Moon or Mars just to remain in orbit?

Putting aside the fact that orbital missions are necessary stepping stones toward landings, Lester frames this as a philosophical debate over the evolving concept of exploration.

"The historical presumption is that exploration means 'boots on the ground.' But we've gone way beyond that," he told me. "We don't have people on Mars, but can you really say we're not exploring Mars?"

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.