PMM relocated on ISS

This morning the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 moved the Permanent Multipurpose Module from the Unity module to the Tranquility module. The module which was previously flown as a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) aboard the Space Shuttle was left at the station in February 2011 to provide additional storage space.

The was moved to continue the re-configuration of the station for the new Commercial Crew Vehicles expected to fly starting late next year.

Below are screen grabs of the move operation from NASA TV.

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The Little Rover that Could continues to impress

Opportunity Rover's Full Marathon-Length Traverse
Opportunity Rover’s Full Marathon-Length Traverse

Eleven years ago the Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the surface of the planet for a planned 90 sol (Mars day) mission, nearly 4000 sols later the rover is still operating.  This week it achieved a another significant milestone becoming the first rover to complete the equivalent of a marathon driving across the surface of the planet.  A milestone that may be hard to beat until Humans are working on the surface of the planet.

Unfortunately the future for the rover is unknown for a couple of reasons, the primary being we just don’t know how much longer it can last it has already operated for 44 times as long as designed and has recently had a software patch to get around a problem with the flash memory.

The other reason the future is in doubt is the 2016 NASA budget doesn’t include funding to continue the operations of the rover. While this was also the case in the 2015 budget congress added funding back so we can be hopeful that they will do the same again, however there is no guarantee.

So how has it lasted this long? There are a couple of answers to this, the first being that it is solar powered so as long as the hardware survives and the solar panels can receive sunlight it should be able to operate. Here is where Mars itself has helped the rover, over the 11 years of operation the power from the solar panels has dropped as dust accumulated on them and then been boosted again when a dust devil (add link) cleans the panels.

Another obverse answer is the rover was well designed, while the initial mission was for 90 sols the designers ensured the rover was capable of operating longer, personally I don’t know if they ever expected it to operate this long but it is a testament to good design and engineering that it has.

Why continue to fund it? Again there are a couple of answers to this, first it is still returning valuable data, there is no other vehicle in that region of Mars and everything it finds helps us to better understand the planet.

Second the longer it operates the more we learn about long distance remote operations of vehicles, unfortunately the older it gets the more issues are likely to occur, as these happen we will learn to adapt the vehicle to handle these issues until the time comes when it is not possible to do that any longer. When that happens the Rover will have completed an extraordinary mission and set some records that will be hard to beat.

To learn more about this amazing vehicle and see the numerous images it has returned on Mars check out the mission page.

Humans vs Robots for Space Exploration

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.

Robotic Missions

(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.

Human Missions

(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.

Conclusion

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.