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Humobots in space

During a simulated lunar operation, NASA's Robonaut prototype welds a seam at a
construction site while two moonwalking astronauts inspect completed work.

Despite the cancellation of NASA's back-to-the-moon program, the next steps on the moon will likely be taken sometime in the next decade under human control. It's just that the humans will be using a robot to take them. The space agency's paradigm shift just might bring a shift to robotic telepresence as the next-best thing to walking on the moon.

Yes, they'll be robots - but if current trends in robotics hold true, the robots could work like humans with superpowers, responding to the movements of a virtual-reality operator and sending back streams of video and data in near real time. Such "humobots" would represent one giant leap beyond the current generation of interplanetary rovers.

The small steps can already be seen in this month's budget proposal for NASA: Among the robotic initiatives suggested to replace the canceled Constellation program is a mission to send out a lunar robot that "can be tele-operated from Earth and can transmit near-live video."

X Prize synergy
That mission sounds very similar to the challenge posed by the Google Lunar X Prize, a program that sets aside $30 million in prizes for teams that develop video-capable lunar landers. And that's music to the ears of Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation.

"The president's budget is directly in line with what we're trying to do with Google Lunar X Prize," Diamandis told me over the weekend.

One of the X Prize teams, Odyssey Moon, is already partnering with NASA's Ames Research Center to develop a lunar lander that could win the prize. Diamandis said the X Prize rules have been written to let teams earn revenue from NASA or other quarters, even during the prize-winning flight.

"We're very open to working with NASA," Diamandis said.

Months ago, NASA Watch's Keith Cowing reported on rumblings that NASA might add millions of dollars to the Google Lunar X Prize kitty. Diamandis wouldn't comment on how the space agency might participate, but he pointed out there was ample precedent for other funders to piggyback on the X Prize purse. Virgin Galactic, for example, paid to have its logo painted on the SpaceShipOne rocket plane for the flight that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. "That is completely within the rules," Diamandis said.

In its latest issue, Aviation Week reports that the shift in NASA's approach was providing an opening for human spaceflight to become more international and commercial in character. Diamandis picked up on that, noting that NASA isn't the only potential customer for X Prize moonshots.  European or Indian space agencies, or even commercial customers, could also get involved in the lunar robot rush, he said.

What is Project M?
NASA won't rely solely on X Prize teams for its space robots, of course. Just this month, the space agency announced that its Robonaut prototype was getting an upgrade with the help of General Motors. The automaker wants to use Robonaut2 as an autonomous assembly-line worker, while NASA's near-term plan is to have the robot assist spacewalkers with maintenance tasks at the International Space Station.

When Robonaut2 is ready for prime time in space, it should be able to work either in remote-control mode, copying the movements of a virtual-reality operator; or in autonomous mode, under the watchful eyes of human monitors.

It's not so far-fetched to imagine remote-controlled Robonauts descending to the moon's surface and serving as the eyes, arms and legs of their human operators in the harsh lunar environment. In fact, SpaceRef has posted a video about "Project M," which appears to be a Johnson Space Center concept for landing a two-legged robot on the lunar surface.

A YouTube video posted by SpaceRef / OnOrbit shows a two-legged NASA
robot exploring the moon as part of "Project M."

There's been something of a buzz over the video - and particularly over the claim that the mission could be accomplished in 1,000 days. That time frame sounds extremely short as spaceflight goes. Skeptics also have questioned whether you'd really want to send a robot with two long legs when a robot with tracks or wheels might have more stability.

But whatever the process of locomotion turns out to be, this seems to be the kind of exploratory mission most in step with NASA's new "flexible-path" strategy. The virtual-reality operators could be back on Earth, dealing with a four-second light-travel delay between making a move and seeing the results. Eventually, they could be pulling the strings from lunar orbit - or from Martian orbit, if and when Robonauts head for the Red Planet.

Is this how the next giant leaps to the moon and beyond will be taken? Or will the humans need to stay in the picture? Feel free to let me know what you think - or what you've heard - as a comment below.

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