How Humanoid Robots Could Pave the Way for Life on Mars

November 28, 2016

5:50 pm

Before humans are expected to step foot on the Red Planet in 2030 according to NASA, humanoid robots could be paving the way for life on Mars.

Unlike their NASA rover counterparts, Opportunity and Curiosity, that currently roam around collecting samples and analyzing the landscape, humanoid robots would be programmed to complete human-like tasks and assist astronauts in the journey to the Red Planet.

In November 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was one of three institutions selected to develop software for NASA’s “R5” or Valkyrie humanoid robots to assist in future missions and space-related tasks such as, repairing equipment opening doors, cleaning solar panels, drilling holes, or driving a car.

Valkyrie is 6 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. It has 28 torque-controlled joints, four body cameras, more than 200 sensors, 3 fingers, a thumb and other limbs that can function like a human.

With missions getting longer, the ability for a human to travel to Mars safely is a grave concern. After 340 days on the space station, NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth where researchers were ready to study the effects of weightlessness on the human body in preparation for a mission to Mars. When Kelly and Kornienko were removed from the space capsule, both had reports of weak lung and chest muscles, and Kelly reported mild vision loss and he grew two inches because his spinal disks expanded, according to USA Today.

Other health effects of space travel include exposure to 20 percent more radiation, loss of muscle mass and bone structure and a weaker cardiovascular system without a vigorous exercise regime. With a round trip ticket to Mars taking nearly three years, the concern of having a human land on Mars with brittle bones and loss of vision among other health risks is a real scenario for astronauts.

According to National Geographic, with the environmental constraints, a humanoid robot like Valkyrie will most likely be making the first footprint on Mars and programmed to build facilities and shelters before humans arrive.

Until then, the team at MIT said there is no need for people to worry about robots taking over the mission just yet, as they are still trying to teach them to stand up when they fall. Sarah Hensley, an undergraduate student in the Robot Locomotion Group in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who is part of the programming team quips.

“Sometimes robots work, and sometimes they don’t. That’s our challenge,” said Hensley.

Learn more about the trip to Mars at NatGeo’s Mars Series.

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Tishin is a technology journalist and correspondent. She has written for TechCrunch, Demand Studios and Fitness, and has regular network segments on local Phoenix affiliate stations. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical and Sport psychology, and has covered many areas of technology ranging from 3D printing and game development to neurotech and funding for over 15 years.

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