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I wish NASA built cars
February 8, 2013 - Stephen Browne
This Jan. 25 marked an anniversary almost nobody noticed. It marked the date the Mars rover Opportunity landed on the Red Planet nine years ago.
What's interesting about this is, NASA predicted the rover would function for about 90 days on Mars.
The Opportunity hasn't exactly been a speed demon. In those nine years it's traveled 22.03 miles. It's making it's way slowly by fits and starts to a crater now eight miles away.
On the other side of the planet, Opportunities sister-rover Spirit is evidently stuck in some crusty sand and isn't expected to move anymore.
The rovers have to endure temperature fluctuations as much as a hundred degrees per day, winters that make Antarctica look like Florida, and blowing dust that often settle over the solar panels that power the rovers' batteries. When the solar panels are covered they have to wait for gusts of wind to blow the dust off and make them functional again.
One reason for the snail's pace is the rovers have to relay images of what's in front of them to the control center at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, where the rovers' crew decides where and how far it's safe for the rover to move and sends appropriate instructions.
Depending on where Mars is in its orbit, the message takes from four to 20 minutes each way.
In the future we can expect advances in artificial intelligence to produce robots with more autonomy, able to make more decisions on their own.
Heavy sigh. It's not the space exploration us SciFi nerds dreamed about when we were kids. No space pioneers yet, just robots. And it looks as if we're going to be exploring the solar system by proxy for a while.
But still, we are out there gathering information. And eventually men and women will follow our machines.
After all, if we can build a vehicle that lasts nine years with no maintenance...
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