Weekend Feature: Avatars –Will They Play a Role in the Future of Space Exploration?

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"Tomorrow’s NASA space program will be different," said Wallace Fowler of the University of Texas, a renowned expert in modeling and design of spacecraft, and planetary exploration systems. "Human space flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), beyond Earth’s natural radiation shields (the Van Allen belts), is dangerous.


Currently, a human being outside the Van Allen belts could receive the NASA defined “lifetime dose” of galactic cosmic radiation within 200 days. If the Sun spews out a coronal jet of radiation in a solar storm in the direction of the spacecraft, a lethal dose can be received in a few hours. Mars does not have the equivalent of the shielding Van Allen belts, so a Mars base would also need shielding. Until we develop appropriate shielding, probably an intense magnetic field around the spacecraft, human travel, even to the moon, will likely be limited."

"Robotic missions, in the short term, will be limited to the inner solar system," continues Fowler aruing the hard realities of manned space travel. "In the inner solar system (within the orbit of Mars), the solar cells can be used to power spacecraft.

Beyond Mars, spacecraft power systems rely on radioactive means to create electricity, and we do not currently have a supply source for the needed material. There is a very short supply of Plutonium 238, the radioactive element used to provide electricity for spacecraft going to Jupiter and beyond. We have exhausted the U.S. supply and have been buying it from the Russians. Now they are in short supply and other sources are not currently available."

Robots, however, are a far cry from true Pandora-like avatars that allow the human user to truly 'experience' the environment. This is where virtual reality technologies come into play.

The Virtual Interactive Environment Workstation (VIEW) was an early virtual reality instrument developed at NASA Ames. It was a leap forward in true 'immersion' of the user in a virtual environment, and was the first systems to use a 'data glove'. This glove measured and tracked how a user moved their fingers, allowing interaction with the virtual world.

NASA is developing technologies that will  allow a human explorer based on Earth, or in the relative safety of a space station or habitat, to actually experience exploration of a distant location. If the technology can be tied to robotic 'avatars' on a planetary surface in real-time, the user would not simply experience a simulation of the world – but could directly participate in exploration and science as if they were there.

With more 'haptic technology' which uses sensory feedback to recreate the sense of touch, a user might wear gloves that allow them to 'feel' objects in a virtual world. You could examine the texture and weight of rocks, or even experience the crunch of icy martian dirt. 

Dr Grace Augustine's Avatars on Pandora go well beyond current technologies. Robotic avatars could allow humans to fully experience the environment of other worlds. Through the eyes of robotic avatars we could watch the sunrise over the rusty, red crater rims without having to "experience suffocation, the icy death of -200 degrees C on their skin or the sting of microscopic dust in their eyes."

"If every habitable world in the universe is unique, and the precise chemical conditions of a planet helps shape the life that evolves there, then avatars could allow aliens to visit other worlds from the safety of their spaceship," reported Astrobio,net. "Could it be that all the stories of alien encounters on Earth were really encounters with alien avatars? Maybe aliens don't actually look like grey humanoids with large eyes and no noses. Instead, that haunting image may simply be what we look like to them."

Even though NASA and others have come a long way in developing avatars, the technology has a long way to go before we're having adventures on Pandora-like planets. 

The Daily Galaxy via http://www.spacedaily.com and Astrobiology Magazine

Image credit: With thanks to Fox News

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