Update (Nov 18th): OK, it looks like this article just hit the front page of Digg. Whilst cool, I’ve made a very quick deduction that people from Digg must not read the text of an article before commenting. Please read the opening paragraph before shouting “OMFG! This guy should really understand what sci-fi means!.” Perhaps the title could be improved (read: “Top 5 Space Robots that Look Like Science Fiction“), but I think all this can be remedied by simply reading the text and not just looking at the pictures. Thanks!
I love science fiction, I always have. In fact, it was the main motivational factor for me to begin to study science in the early 90’s. Although sci-fi is outlandish, futuristic and seemingly impossible, there is actually a high degree of science fact behind the TV shows, movies and video games. So when I was young, sci-fi fuelled my enthusiasm for physics; more specifically, astrophysics.
Many years after these first forays into trying to understand how the Universe really worked, I now find myself drawn to real space missions doing real science only to find the divide between sci-fi and sci-fact is getting smaller and smaller. However, to ignite the imagination and build an enthusiasm for the “futuristic” science being carried out right now, it helps if the robotic embodiment of the satellite, rover, probe or lander looks futuristic itself (possibly even a bit “sci-fi”). This way we not only do great science, but we ignite the imaginations of men, women and children who would have otherwise ignored the science behind space exploration.
So, here are my top five missions to ignite the imagination, past and future…
5. CryoSat-2: Inspired by Da Vinci?
Cryosat-2 will be launched in 2009 by the European Space Agency (ESA) to be flown into orbit so it can begin a three-year survey, monitoring the condition of the ice sheets around the Earth’s poles. At first glance, Cryosat-2 may not look like much, but on further inspection, you can tell it is a definite departure from the standard “flimsy solar panel waving” satellite look. In some views, it may look like a shed (solar panelling giving the satellite a very roof-like appearance), but there is a retro sci-fi appeal to this advanced piece of technology. On looking through the great Leonardo da Vinci’s designs, one concept jumps out at me. Was Cryosat-2 inspired by da Vinci’s armoured car design? Probably not, but it looks pretty cool regardless.
4. ESA ExoMars Pasteur Rover: Moulded from Gold
Ever since I first laid eyes on the Pasteur rover, I’ve been in love. Although the science being carried out by the current rovers on the Red Planet (including the epic near-death tale currently unfolding from Mars Exploration Rover Spirit) is phenomenal, the solar panelled “hat” rover look is fairly generic. Solar panels are an essential energy-generating tool (unless you’re a certain bulky NASA Jeep, packing plutonium-filled RTGs. How are they going to land that thing again?), so if you’re a small rover, you need to wear your solar panels with pride.
This is where the Pasteur rover takes the standard rover design and makes it better. As can be seen from the artist’s impression above, it looks like the robot has been moulded out of gold, certainly an improvement on its previous dorky-looking frame. Plus, it will be carrying a huge drill to bore deep into Mars. If that’s not a superbly designed robot, I don’t know what is.
Alas, we’ll have to wait until we see the Pasteur rover making treadmarks in the regolith. It’s not set for launch until 2013.
For more, see: ExoMars Rover Will be the Coolest Martian on Six Wheels.
3. GOCE: Intimidating Low-Earth Orbit
It is shaped like a bullet, resembles a Star Destroyer and it is propelled by its own ion drive. Satellites don’t get much more “sci-fi” than this! As with Cryosat-2, the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is a departure from the standard satellite “look”, bolting all its solar panelling to one side of its bodywork. The science is incredible too, it will detect the smallest changes in the Earth’s gravitational field, plotting the contours of our planet’s geoid.
However, this means GOCE will need to orbit low. So low in fact that it will be influenced by drag of the upper atmosphere. Cue the aerodynamic bullet-shape and ion drive. Awesome.
GOCE should be in space right now, but is suffering launch delays after a fault was detected in the Rokot launch vehicle that will deliver it into orbit. It looks like we’ll have to wait until February until we see this stunning robot fly overhead…
For more see: GOCE Will be the Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever.
2. Phoenix Mars Lander: Recently Departed, Never Forgotten
It was a space exploration story of epic proportions. The Phoenix Mars Lander touched down on the Red Planet in May, and from that point on our perception of Mars changed. Although the lander was one of the most advanced pieces of kit sent on an interplanetary voyage, its design wasn’t that different from the legendary Viking landers from the 1970’s. But its design isn’t what made this little lander special, it was its panache.
For starters, any planetary mission that has a portion of its flight called the “7-minutes of terror” is worth paying attention to. After all, Phoenix only took 7 minutes to re-enter and land (via a powered landing, using a rocket pack — none of this “air bag” nonsense), punching into the Martian atmosphere and showing off to the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter watching over the planet. Following the dramatic landing, Phoenix surpassed all of its mission objectives, confirming water ice, finding perchlorate (that may or may not be conducive to life), taking stunning images; it even had its mission extended by two months. Alas, all good things come to an end and Phoenix died last week.
What really set this NASA mission apart from the rest was the open lines of communication. NASA and University of Arizona scientists blogged, Twittered and released constant mission updates. A true effort in public participation and understanding. Phoenix, you will be missed by millions.
1. Voyager 1 & 2: Inspiring a Generation
As far as missions go, you can’t beat the twin Voyager probes. Voyager 1 is the fastest moving, and most distant manmade object — it is 107.58 AU (16.093 billion km, or 9.94 billion miles) away, travelling at 17 km/s — and Voyager 2 isn’t that far behind (although it’s going in the opposite direction). Both probes have carried out the longest period of Solar System exploration than any other spacecraft and they are still operational today, 31 years after they were launched in 1977 (it is hoped they will still be transmitting for two more decades).
The reason why the Voyager project is #1 on my list is that I cannot think of any other robotic explorer more successful and longer lived than Voyager. In return, the Voyager probes have inspired a generation, their elegant design firing the imagination and reminding us that NASA’s glory days are far from over…
For more, see NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Mission pages.