NASA's InSight landing landed on the surface of Mars in November. Its mission: to unravel secrets about the creation of the planets in our solar system. Crucial to that mission: a robotic broom arm that extended slowly after landing to place a series of sensitive scientific instruments on the Martian surface, and even pierce the planet itself.
To learn more about what it takes to manipulate a robotic arm on the surface of a distant planet, Futurism spoke with Al Tadros, VP of Space Infrastructure and Civil Space at SSL, where he manages the company's relationship with NASA and helps invent as much as possible. Sophisticated robot arms that will never leave Earth.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Futurism: there are only five robotic arms on Mars, all five built by SSL. How did you become the contractor of robotic weapons at NASA?
Al Tadros: Five robotic arms have been operated on Mars and we had the luck to build those five, the most recent of which was the InSight Lander arm. We started as a spinoff of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory about 20 years ago, from a core team pbadionate about science and that wanted to initiate robotic capabilities that could help JPL.
F: Mars is tens of millions of miles from the nearest repair shop. How do you approach the design of something that absolutely needs to work, even with no one around to fix it?
AT: Part of the core of the space industry is that it is necessary to build hardware that works for years without maintenance. So, yes, robotics is in extreme environmental conditions, but we have many satellites that we build that must be qualified and operated in extreme conditions. So we have processes, suppliers, tests and programs that prove the reliability of everything we build.
Robotics on Mars has some unique environments that must endure. While many of our satellites were built in a clean room and launched and operated in the vacuum of space, Mars landers actually go through a thin atmosphere and land on a dusty surface. When they arrive at a destination, they have to work in a day and night environment, which means that the temperature is extreme with a light atmosphere and dust around. And that poses unique challenges for robotic or mechanical systems such as the Mars landers.
F: How do you simulate the Martian surface? Are you testing somewhere on Earth that is like Mars?
AT: Good question. First, for the hardware or spacecraft we build, we have to put it in a container and take it to a launch site and put it in the rocket. And during the first minutes when the rocket is rising, it is vibrating strongly and has many acoustic vibrations, like being in a rock concert, shaking on a stage. So, literally, we put it on a vibration stand and shake it in a similar way so we can verify that the design meets and survives the launch.
It vibrates with force and has many acoustic vibrations, like in a rock concert, on a stage.
When you do not have air and you do not have the thermal properties of air, you have different types of thermal behavior of your spaceship. We simulate that in a vacuum chamber called a thermal vacuum chamber for that reason.
F: Let's talk about InSight's multitasking skills. It has a handful of important scientific instruments on board and the robotic arm plays a crucial role in its deployment. How do you approach an engineering task like this?
AT: These missions are driven by science, so the leader of these missions will be a scientist who has a main set of badigned objectives that he is trying to achieve. For Mars InSight Lander, that means placing critical payloads on the surface of Mars.
For Mars 2020, which is the next mission we are working on now, we are actually building the Mars sample handling arm that is collecting surface samples. And there you want to keep a pristine sample that could be returned to Earth, which means that there are unique requirements for that.
F: What is the next phase of the InSight mission specifically that you personally are most excited to see?
AT: It goes back to the same impulse of the mission: science. What InSight is doing is studying the inner planets of our solar system. So, what we study on Mars has applications here on Earth and the evolution of our own planet. And it helps us understand the solar system in a broader sense.
The only thing about studying Mars is that humans have populated a large part of the Earth's mbad here on Earth and that we generate a lot of human-induced activities, vibrations and noise pollution. On Mars you do not have that. So we can really study a pristine rocky planet.
F: Can you imagine that SSL has a role in human exploration of Mars? There is a lot of talk about taking humans to the surface of Mars.
AT: It could be decades, but people are already working on it, in various ways. Even NASA at this time is focused on going to the Moon but in a sustainable way. But many of the capabilities that are unfolding around the Moon and on the surface of the Moon are to demonstrate and evolve and advance our ability to go to Mars and more.
F: Speaking of sending human astronauts to Mars, are you worried that missions with crew can be overcome by robotic technology?
AT: There are two aspects to that. One is, can we put humans on Mars or on the surface of the Moon? And the other is: what do we want humans to do? There is a gene for exploration in humanity, either to reach the summit of Mount Everest or to explore the reason for existence or explore our solar system. Humans are a very exploratory species, so I think there will always be that human element. And robotics will be used to push the envelope.
There is a gene for exploration in humanity, either to reach the summit of Mount Everest or to explore the reason for existence or explore our solar system.
As you probably noticed last week, we had the first commercial capsule of the crew that was launched and returned to Earth, which was a phenomenal milestone. It goes back to the beginning of the aviation industry, when the planes were very experimental, but it became a very common place in decades.
F: Do you apply AI technology to your robotic arms, especially with respect to InSight?
AT: We are not building the software that operates it. That is the work of JPL. Rovers and robotics on Mars basically receive a command to move to a point and wait for the next command. Or a sequence of commands is given and it follows that sequence whenever all the telemetry is green. If he encounters a problem, he stops and waits for the operator to be back on Earth. So it's a rudimentary type of control, but it's very conservative and safe because we do not need to operate quickly.
Once human beings or other critical elements of time are involved, there is interest in how it automates or how it improves the efficiency of time, because the astronaut's time is precious.
We have not implemented the AI in the arms of Mars before, but with the software and the processing and the algorithms now advancing so rapidly, I believe that not only Gateway, but all future robotic systems will have some levels of autonomy and artificial intelligence built into them .
F: Anything else you want to talk about?
AT: One of the most interesting aspects of space robotics at this time is the potential to bademble spacecraft, space telescopes and other platforms in space.
A spaceship the size of the Space Station could never be built and launched into a launch vehicle. If you open your mind to build communication satellites, space telescopes, habitats in space, that's what I think we are approaching now, which reminds us of the von Braun space station of the 1940s and science fiction. What we are going to reach is an era in space where we are not limited by the size of a launch vehicle.