Sunday, January 14, 2007

Robotic Astronomy

I knew it probably wouldn't take very long to find people writing about robots and robotics being used in space exploration. Take for example this recent article over at Universe Today. The first half of the article discusses the history of robotics, both in early sci-fi literature and more recently in everyday usage in industry and the home. The article ends with a description of the emergence of the robotic observatory. These observatories are further enhancing the already impressive capability of amateur astronomers to make significant contributions to the field.

This type of technology will almost certainly be deployed when NASA returns to the moon. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the first things they do upon their return is to set up a robotic observatory. Even a relatively modest setup could potentially rival some of the capabilities of the Hubble space telescope. Being located in close proximity to the proposed lunar outpost, the observatory could be upgraded and repaired on a fairly frequent basis (assuming the continuing presence of astronauts at the outpost and frequent resupply transports). With proper planning of upgrades, the capabilities of a lunar observatory could eventually be expanded far beyond that of the Hubble.

In other news, Google is pitching in to help with the data management aspects of a new astronomy collaboration which intends to capture the night sky in motion. Last month Google also announced that it would be teaming up with NASA at Ames Research Lab to help them handle the vast amounts of data that have been pouring in from the agency's robotic probes for the last fifty years.

For astronomers, data glut has always seemed to be a problem. It seems like every new instrument or observatory that comes online is capable of generating many times the amount of data than its operators can reasonably process. For a good example of how this data glut is benefiting one particular astronomer, take a look at this article by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy regarding the Hubble parallel program. The good news is that much of this information is quickly released to the public. The bad news is that the information is not always easily accessible. Hopefully, Google will be able to help in that respect.

And finally (for this post anyway), Bruce Irving over at Music of the Spheres posts a brief observation about the proliferation of robotics in the home.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A new year, a new focus.

Well, it happened. I have pretty much let this blog atrophy into irrelevance. (Not that it was ever relevant to anyone other than myself.) The thing is, I find myself at a decided disadvantage. There are so many excellent spaceflight related blogs out there, and they all seem to be run by much more qualified individuals than myself and who apparently have much more free time to blog than I do. These individuals do such an excellent job covering the latest "new space" news and speculating on possible future spaceflight architectures that I find I have very little additional insights to offer to the discussion.

I've also been thinking alot about what I'm going to be doing next with my life. I'm nearing the completion of my dissertation research in Computational Engineering, and am beginning to look forward to doing something useful in the area of spaceflight research and development. Since I started this degree program, so much has happened in the area of spaceflight and so many opportunities have opened up, that I can't wait to get out there and start contributing.

Of course, my personal goal all along has been to one day become an astronaut. However, I find that the particular set of research skills I have been developing over the past several years (developing computational simulation technology in support of NASA engineers designing and building the next generation of rocket engines) may not be directly applicable to the duties of an astronaut. At best, I am on track to become a rocket scientist, or propulsion engineer for NASA or any of the emerging companies focused on space launch and transport. In the near term, advanced propulsion technologies are fascinating to me and I would love to have the opportunity to work directly on the development of new rocket engines. However, in the longer term, I am concerned that this particular career path may not put me in demand when in comes to being selected for astronaut duty.

In light of all of this introspection, I've been reviewing my interests, talents, and experience to date, and I think I've found a field of expertise that may be much more relevant to astronauts in the very near future. The way I see it, when people finally start going into space to get some real work done, there will most likely be a great need for robotic assistants to accomplish many difficult and dangerous tasks. An astronaut trained to operate, repair, and modify these robotic helpers would be invaluable. I've always had an interest in robotics and a talent with computers and programming. I also have some limited experience designing and building a very primitive robot for my Masters thesis project (an automated data acquisition apparatus in which a PC ran the experiment, collected the data, and presented the results to the user).

So, with the new year upon us, I have decided to begin to look into the current state of the art, and near future possibilities, of robotics, with particular emphasis on space exploration applications. I will attempt to document my research on this blog. I do not yet know if there are others out there already blogging this particular angle on space exploration, but I hope I will be able to compile and distill some useful information that may be of interest to others.

Ad Astra, Per Aspera

Labels: , ,