Will AI-Powered Robots Discover Life on Mars in 2012? (A ‘Galaxy’ Most Popular)

Mars_science_laboratory_roverWhile the "man" in mankind is lacking these days, with our boldest and bravest endeavours being criticized as costly or dangerous, we're still adventuring into outer space.  If we can't go, with our shuttles retired and our future unclear, we've built batallions of robots to explore outer space for us.  They last longer, they don't complain about one-way trips or freezing to death, and the probability of artificial intelligences coming back to kill us has been measured as "only happened in 10% of Star Trek movies."

One interplanetary explorer is already in action: the MESSENGER probe blasts past Mercury once or twice a year, mapping some of the hottest real estate in the solar system each time.  These flybys are tantalising tastes of the data to come when MESSENGER's path chills out and enters orbit around the closest planet to the sun.  Scientists hope for clues in mysteries like "Is there ice on Mercury?" (seriously), "Why does this have a magnetic field while Mars doesn't?" and "How did it end up the densest planet in the solar system?"

2012 will be an exciting year for astronomers.  While everyone on Earth pretends to care about the Olympics we'll be scanning Mars and Vesta. The plutonium-powered Mars Science Laboratory will touch down, and at ten times the weight of previous rovers it's the Humvee of interplanetory offroading.  Except it's really intelligent, actually needs to be that size, is massively useful, will hugely enrich human culture instead of draining it and isn't compensating for anything at all.  So it's actually the anti-Hummer. If the MSL was ever to touch one of those penis extensions they'd annihilate in an explosion of the opposite applications of technology so intense it'd erase  every H-one two and three off the planet.  Leaving millions of minisculey-equipped forty-somethings skidding along on their asses in heavy traffic.  Which would be great.

The other epic Olympic-year arrival will be Dawn's arrival at Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, and important clue in the origins of the Solar System.  Vesta and Ceres are two of the largest asteroids out there (often called "protoplanets" or even "dwarf planets" by those who need cooler headlines) and Dawn's out to study both, the robosplorer overshooting Vesta and arriving at Ceres in 2015.

But just aiming for the planet closest to the sun?  Two rocks out of the countless millions in the asteroid belt?  Too easy!  The European Scape Agency are going for the moving target bonus multiplier with ROSETTA, which will not only hunt down the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (presumably to score a billion points in some kind of space exploration Scrabble), but will actually harpoon it like a whale of space.  The comet's gravity is tiny, so while the main probe maintains an expertly calculated orbit of a rock only four kilometers across, a lander will harpoon the rock and reel itself down to the surface.

We've been moving further out along this list – starting with Mercury, then Mars, and when ROSETTA enters orbit around 67p it'll be more than twice as far from the sun again – but the prize for boldly going where no bot has ever gone before belongs to New Horizons.  In the time it took you to read this clause it's travelled seventeen of the multi-billion kilometers on the way to Pluto (which, since it was launched in early 2006, it thinks is still a planet and everyone is too polite to say differently).  In 2015 it'll flyby the furthest flung famous collection of solar rocks, scanning Pluto, Charon, Nix, and Hydra.  Making it sound like a Disney-sponsored D&D hero.

As always, here we should take a moment to remember the furthest flung man-made object of all.  Godspeed, Voyager 1, you're the best we ever did.

It's a great time for solar system scientists, or anyone who cares about how we got here and interplanetary travel.  Which should be everyone.

Luke McKinney

http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=future-robotic-exploration

Links.  Read some of this stuff, it beats everything on Digg put together!
MESSENGER http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/messenger/whymessenger/index.html
Mars Science Laboratory http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/
Dawn Mission http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/
Rosetta http://www.esa.int/esaMI/Rosetta/ESAGJF7708D_0.html
New Horizons http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/index.html

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