BY SOPHIE LEWIS, CBS News
When searching for signs of life on other planets, scientists say caves are a crucial place to look. But how can a team on Earth effectively explore intricate, dark, unfamiliar landscapes on another world?
NASA and Boston Dynamics have found an answer: Fully autonomous robots. Caves are one of the most likely places to find signs of both current and past life on other planets because they are capable of protecting life from cosmic rays and extreme temperature fluctuations around our solar system. A NASA project called BRAILLE is now working on exploring Mars-like caves that already exist on Earth in order to hone key technologies for future missions.
According to researchers, the project has enabled the first-ever fully autonomous robotic exploration of these types of caves, which are several hundred meters long and limit communication with the surface. As the robots explore, with no prior information about the environment, a team of researchers outside the cave simultaneously performs actions that scientists on Earth would be executing during a real Martian mission.
The research, which project lead Ali Agha said could “fundamentally change how we think about future missions,” is now in year three of four in its quest to journey to the moon, the red planet and beyond.
But researchers are interested in exploring caves for another reason beyond finding signs of life: caves provide obvious natural shelters for future astronauts exploring Mars or the moon.
“Future potential human exploration missions can benefit from robots in many different ways,” Agha told CBS News. “Particularly, robots can be sent in precursor missions to provide more information about the destination before humans land on those destinations. In addition, robots can accompany astronauts during the missions to help with scouting certain terrains or with logistics and many tasks that can make astronauts’ missions safer and more efficient.”
So, how is designing a Mars robot different from designing an Earth robot? They are similar in a lot of ways, Agha said, especially when it comes to the AI robot brain, called NeBula, and its ability to process information and make decisions when they don’t have contact with scientists on Earth.
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