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The Moon is a School for Exploration :: 17 February, 2007
NASA has been exploring space for nearly half a century, often with stupendous success. Yet "there's one thing we really don't know: what is the best way to explore a planet?" declares Paul D. Spudis, a senior planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
Discovering the most effective techniques for exploring a planet is itself cutting-edge research—just as discovering the most effective mining technologies or the best ways of surviving and making machinery work in Antarctica are pioneering research.
Thus, for the same reasons that nations have founded university-level schools of mines and the U.S. Army founded its own Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, NASA wants to use the Moon as a graduate school for exploration.
On the Moon, astronauts can develop and test techniques for building habitats, harvesting resources and operating machinery in low gravity, high vacuum, harsh radiation, pervasive dust and fantastic extremes of temperature—an environment whose prolonged combination is simply impossible to duplicate on Earth. What they learn will be useful not only on the Moon, but also essential for preparations in going to Mars.
One research project topping the curriculum: What is the best combination of humans and robots? Unmanned orbiting spacecraft and rovers have returned millions of gigabytes of high-quality data from the Moon and planets, revolutionizing our understanding of the solar system. But for geological field work, says Spudis, nothing can replace a trained geologist with a rock hammer, experienced eyes, and the knowledge to understand rocks in the context of their environment.
For that reason, NASA wants to explore how best to blend humans and machines. One promising technology is telepresence, similar to what's now used in hospital operating rooms for certain types of surgery. From the safety of a radiation-shielded underground lunar habitat, a geologist's movements could be instantly mirrored by a robot on the surface, complete with instant sensory feedback much as an astronaut has through the gloves of a space suit, Spudis explains. Is that the best way, though? In some circumstances, a robot on its own making lightning-fast decisions with artificial intelligence might do a better job. Again, it's a question best answered by on-site research.
Release link: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2007/14feb_school.htm