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A mosaic of images shows NASA’s Curiosity rover in its Martian surroundings. Researchers say future rovers may well be controlled from stations in Mars orbit. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS Photo)

Robotic telepresence could save future Mars explorers from the perils that faced fictional astronaut Mark Watney in “The Martian” — and serve as the most efficient way to study the Red Planet up close, scientists say.

An arrangement for having astronauts in Martian orbit communicate with robots on the surface is laid out in a paper published in this week’s issue of Science Robotics.

The set-up addresses a dilemma that faces mission planners as they consider how to deploy robots and humans tens of millions of miles from Earth.

The teams in charge of the rovers currently on Mars, Opportunity and Curiosity, have to deal with delays in getting data back and forth, due to the time it takes for signals to travel at the speed of light. These delays, called “latencies,” can last anywhere from 5 to 40 minutes, depending on the positions of Mars and Earth in their orbits.

The process can take even longer if the orbiters that help relay the data aren’t aligned just right. When sending a command to the Curiosity rover, for example, it can sometimes take a day or longer for the robot to get the message, complete the task and send the data back to Earth.

“The time delay is likely to dramatically reduce the quality and scientific value of such collaborations in exploring faraway places like Mars,” Kip Hodges, a professor at Arizona State University, said in a news release.

This is one reason why NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars for on-the-ground exploration. But putting those astronauts on the Red Planet’s surface can be an expensive and risky solution, as anyone who has watched “The Martian” knows.

Telepresence system
A graphic shows how astronauts on an orbiting space station could control robots on Mars while staying in touch with Earth. The space station is not shown to scale. (NASA / GSFC Illustration)

Hodges and his colleagues — Dan Lester of Texas-based Exinetics and Robert Anderson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — say a telepresence system would provide a safer and cost-effective compromise. The system involves putting humans on an orbiting station and operating robots on the surface, at a distance close enough that the latency amounts to only a fraction of a second.

Physicians on Earth have already proved telepresence successful through the use of minimally invasive robotic surgery. Just as surgeons use robots to operate just feet away from their patients, the researchers behind the newly published paper say astronauts could control robots in near-real time from Mars orbit.

“This is in many ways superior to an astronaut on the surface in a bulky pressurized spacesuit with limited consumables,” they say in the paper.

Telepresence systems would also reduce the risk of contaminating sites of interest on Mars with earthly microbes, and reduce the risk of exposing astronauts to Martian contamination.

A research group affiliated with the Keck Institute for Space Studies is currently evaluating the scientific opportunities for exploration telepresence.

Putting Mark Watney in orbit rather than on the surface might take some of the drama out of the plot, but only for a while. Having humans on Mars would still be the long-term goal, Hodges said.

“Exploration telepresence would be a reasonable compromise until that day comes,” he said.

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