Last week the European Space Agency achieved an important milestone in the history of Space Exploration with the first landing on a Comet. The lander named Philae was released from it’s parent spacecraft Rosetta and seven hours later touched down in the surface. Due to some complications the spaecraft ended up bouncing and landed two additional times coming to rest in a location that resulted in it not getting nearly enough sunlight to recharge the batteries.
There is a possibility that as the Comet travels around the Sun there may be more sunlight available that would allow the lander to have enough power to start up again but there is no guarantee of that.
Since this happened there has been quite a debate about the advantages of robotic vs human exploration.
In this post we will explore the advantages and dis-advantages of each and why we believe there is an important place for each.
(A) The first and biggest advantage is the reduced overhead of providing for a human crew from Life Support, Food, Water, Waste Management, etc.
(A) Due to the lack of advanced space propulsion systems travel within our own Solar System takes a long time. Robotic missions to deeper into the Solar System handle this by designing the necessary protections and in the case of recent missions long hibernation periods.
(A) Can visit places that are either too extreme for human’s or we don’t know enough about yet to risk human visitors.
(D) Can only adapted to scenarios that have been pre-programmed and then only depending on the abilities given to the robotic mission. Take for example the Philae lander, it ended up in a location that wasn’t ideal for the vehicle and doesn’t have the capabilities to address that itself.
(D) If something breaks it may be impossible to repair it depending what capabilities where built into the spacecraft.
(A) Can perform a much wider range of experiments and make decisions on what to sample.
(A) Can quickly adapt to situations as they happened rather than having to communicate back to Earth and waiting for new commands. For example on the way to Mars come across a Comet or Asteroid they could adapt the mission to observe it or even visit it depending no impact to overall mission.
(A) Can make repairs and upgrades during the mission if something goes wrong which is inevitable with anything and with the advances in 3D printing new parts could be created by the crew and replaced as they are travelling.
(D) Require a lot of resources, need to have enough for the whole mission plus some contingencies for emergencies. Getting all these resources into space either from Earth or in the future from in-space mining etc will cost money and add risk for each launch needed.
(D) We know the effects weightlessness has on the body from research done so far on the ISS and other space stations. For longer duration missions we would need to ensure this is handled, and depending on the mission, and it’s length there could be different ways to handle this.
(D) If something catastrophic happens there may not be abort scenarios that would allow the crew to survive or even get back to Earth. A mission to Mars takes many months of travel when the alignment is optimal and could be significantly longer if not.
There are clearly advantages and dis-advantages to each, we believe that there are important places for both in the future.
Until such time as we have much faster transportation in space deep space missions are just too long for humans to do without spending vast amounts of money, therefore robotic missions are needed.
We also need manned missions to help us continue to learn about surviving in space.
Even in the future shown in Star Trek or other movies it is clear that a combination of Manned and Robotics is used for exploration.
We would love to hear your thoughts on the Human vs Robot discussion below in the comments.