Friday, December 20, 2013

Behold, Our Robotic Proxies

The Jade Rabbit & Alan Bean
image by Robert Little
Since the landing and deployment of the Yutu rover on the surface of the Moon, my mind has gone back to thinking about robotic vs. human missions on planetary surfaces. Recently, Katy Levinson posted over at BoingBoing a piece talking about how the Moon really is a harsh mistress ("The Moon is Terrifying, and That's Why I Love It")
As a child, I remember clearly the images of the astronauts after those landings, and especially the later ones. Their once pristine white suits were now dingy, covered with lunar regolith, dust. Lunar dust, it turns out, is nasty stuff. Not only does it cling mercilessly to just about everything, it has sharp edges that makes it something of a real threat, not just to equipment, but to human life. Breathing the stuff could be potentially hazardous.
At the same time I read her article, I was working on a model 1/12.5 scale of the Yutu (still frozen in construction, at the time of this writing). As I analyzed every available image I could about the rover, I made a few observations, and in many ways it truly drove home how this approach is in many ways preferable to having human prospectors at this time. 
As I mentioned in my previous entry, I talked about what dimensions for Yutu that were available. The most stated dimension was its height, 1.5 meters, or around 59 inches. This is very close to the same height as human eyes. The way the camera array is setup on Yutu's mast gives the operators an almost human view of the lunar surface. Not quite telepresence, but close. This makes Yutu more than just a rover, gathering data and performing experiments. 
It is very much a human proxy. That's what my drawing up there symbolizes. 
The Yutu rover is going to be exposed to the elements far longer than any human can as well.
Does this negate sending humans to the Moon, let alone any other world within the Solar System?
I don't believe it does. However, having these robotic pathfinders out there doing the grunt work makes the best sense for now. The time is coming when, once again, human beings will step foot on the surface of these other worlds. Until that day, we should leave it to these mechanical proxies. 

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