We Interviewed the Man Who Goals up NASA’s Martian Robotic Arms

NASA’s InSight lander touched down on the floor of Mars in November. Its mission: to unravel secrets and techniques in regards to the creation of the planets in our photo voltaic system. Essential to that mission: a broom-length robotic arm that it slowly prolonged after touchdown to put various delicate scientific devices on the Martian floor — and even drill into the planet itself.

To search out out extra about what it takes to govern a robotic arm on the floor of a distant planet, Futurism talked to Al Tadros, VP of Area Infrastructure and Civil Area at SSL — the place he manages the corporate’s relationship with NASA and helps invent probably the most subtle robotic arms ever to depart Earth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.

Futurism: There are solely 5 robotic arms on Mars, all 5 of them constructed by SSL. How did you grow to be NASA’s go-to contractor for robotic arms?

Al Tadros: There have been 5 robotic arms operated on Mars and we’ve been lucky to construct all 5 of these, the latest of which was the InSight Lander arm. We began out as a spin off from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory about 20 years in the past from a core crew that was captivated with science and wished to provoke robotic capabilities that may assist JPL.

F: Mars is tens of hundreds of thousands of miles from the closest restore store. How do you method the design of one thing that completely must work, even with no person round to repair it?

AT: A part of the core of the area trade is that it’s crucial to construct that features for years with out upkeep. So sure, the robotics are underneath excessive environmental situations, however we’ve got plenty of satellites that we construct that need to be certified and operated in excessive situations as effectively. So we’ve got processes, suppliers, exams and applications that check the reliability of all of what we construct.

The robotics on Mars have some distinctive environments that they’ve to resist. Whereas lots of our satellites have been inbuilt a cleanroom and launched and operated within the vacuum of area, the Mars landers truly undergo a skinny ambiance and land on a dusty floor. Once they attain a vacation spot they need to work in a day and night time setting that means that temperature extremes with a slight ambiance and with mud being blown round. And that does pose distinctive challenges for robotic or mechanical programs just like the Mars landers.

Picture Credit score: NASA

F: How do you simulate the Martian floor? Do you check someplace on Earth that’s Mars-like?

AT: Good query. Initially, for or spacecraft that we construct, we’ve got to place it in a container and take it to a launch website and put it on the rocket. And for the primary jiffy when the rocket goes up, it’s being vibrated laborious and it has plenty of acoustic vibrations on it — like being at a rock live performance — being shaken on a stage. So we actually put it on a vibration stand and shake it in a similar way in order that we are able to confirm that the design meets and survives the launch.

It’s being vibrated laborious and it has plenty of acoustic vibrations on it — like being at a rock live performance — being shaken on a stage.

Whenever you don’t have air and also you don’t have thermal properties of air, you may have totally different sorts of thermal habits out of your spacecraft. We simulate that in a vacuum chamber referred to as a thermal vacuum chamber for that purpose.

F: Let’s discuss in regards to the multitasking skills of InSight. It has a handful of main scientific devices onboard and the robotic arm performs a fairly essential position of their deployment. How do you method an engineering process like this?

AT: These missions are science pushed so the lead for these missions will likely be a scientist who has a major set of assigned goals they’re attempting to attain. For the Mars InSight Lander meaning inserting the crucial payloads on the floor of Mars.

For Mars 2020, which is the subsequent mission we’re engaged on now, we’re truly constructing the Mars pattern dealing with arm which is gathering samples from the floor. And there you wish to keep a pristine pattern that could be returned again to Earth, that means there are distinctive necessities for that.

Picture Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

F: What’s the subsequent part of the InSight mission particularly that you simply’re personally most excited to see?

AT: It goes again to the very impetus of the mission — the science. What InSight is doing is learning the interior planets in our photo voltaic system. So what we research on Mars has functions right here on Earth and the evolution of our personal planet. And it helps us perceive the photo voltaic system in a broader sense.

The distinctive factor about learning Mars is that people have populated plenty of the land mass right here on Earth and there’s plenty of human induced actions, vibration, and noise air pollution that we generate. On Mars you don’t have that. So we are able to truly research a pristine rocky planet.

F: Do you envision SSL having a task within the human exploration of Mars? There’s plenty of speak about taking people to the floor of Mars.

AT: It could possibly be a long time however persons are engaged on it already — in various methods. Even NASA proper now’s centered on going ahead to the Moon however in a sustainable manner. However lots of the capabilities they’re deploying across the Moon and on the floor of the Moon are to display and evolve and advance our means to go to Mars and additional.

F: Talking of sending human astronauts to Mars, do you are concerned that crewed missions could possibly be leapfrogged by robotic know-how?

AT: There are two elements to that. One is, can we put people on Mars or on the floor of the Moon? And the opposite is: what’s it that we would like us people to do? There may be an exploration gene in humanity — whether or not it’s attending to the highest of Mount Everest or probing the explanation for existence or exploring our photo voltaic system. People are very a lot an exploratory species, so I believe that there’ll all the time be that human aspect. And robotics will likely be used to push the envelope.

There may be an exploration gene in humanity — whether or not it’s attending to the highest of Mount Everest or probing the explanation for existence or exploring our photo voltaic system.

As you most likely seen final week, we had the primary industrial crew capsule that launched and returned to Earth, which was an outstanding milestone. It harkens again to the beginning of the aviation trade, when airplanes have been very experimental, however grew to become quite common place inside a long time.

Picture Credit score: NASA

F: Do you apply AI know-how in any respect in your robotic arms, particularly relating to InSight?

AT: We’re not constructing the software program that operates it. That’s JPL’s job. The rovers and the robotics on Mars are mainly given a command to maneuver to some extent and look ahead to the subsequent command. Or a sequence of instructions are given and it follows that sequence so long as all of the telemetry is inexperienced. If it runs into an issue it stops and waits for the operator again on Earth. So it’s a rudimentary sort of management, nevertheless it’s very conservative and secure as a result of we don’t have to function rapidly.

When you get people or different time crucial parts concerned, there’s curiosity in the way you automate it or the way you enhance the time effectivity — as a result of the astronaut’s time is valuable.

We haven’t applied AI on the Mars arms earlier than, however with software program and processing and algorithms now advancing so quickly I imagine that not solely Gateway, however all future robotic programs may have some ranges of autonomy and synthetic intelligence embedded in them.

F: Anything you wished to speak about?

AT: Probably the most thrilling elements of area robotics proper now’s the potential to assemble spacecraft, area telescopes, and different platforms in area.

A spacecraft the scale of the Area Station might by no means be constructed and launched on one launch car. When you open up your considering to constructing communication satellites, area telescopes, habitats in area — that’s what I imagine that we’re now approaching, which harkens again to the von Braun area station from the 1940s and sci-fi. What we’re going to get to is an period in area the place we’re not restricted by the scale of a launch car.

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