Biological roadblocks to long-distance space travel are still keeping humans tethered to Earth, but we are sending our eyes, ears, and other senses into the solar system and beyond at an increasingly rapid pace.
Space robotics, the convergence of the artificial intelligence revolution and the space race, is exploding into one of the hottest branches of cutting-edge technology. We have already sent several rovers to crawl the surface of Mars, sending back stunning images and data about our most habitable planetary neighbor.
Now Perseverance is set to touch down on the Red Planet on February 18. On board it carries a state-of-the-art camera, as well as scientific instruments for analyzing the soil, the atmosphere, and evidence of possible life. In a first for space rovers, it also has a specially developed microphone. For the first time, people on Earth will get to hear the sounds of Mars.
The A.I.-driven exploration of Mars ramps up, the rest of the space robotics industry is also flourishing. According to a new report, the global market is expected to reach $5.71 billion by 2027, accelerating at a clip of more than 5% per year. Fueling the expansion is the need for operation and maintenance of a proliferating number of satellites and increasing desire to venture out into the unknown.
“Far from science fiction, space robots are very much a current reality, and rapidly growing in sophistication,” said XYZ, of AMG QUOTE. “It’s only going to get more exciting from this point forward.”
According to Grand View Research Inc., remotely-operated vehicles, such as Mars rovers, represent what is expected to be the fastest-growing sub-segment of the industry. The “deep space segment,” relating to outer space exploration, is the next fastest-growing area.
Springy-looking robotic “dogs,” which traverse terrain easily on four legs, are likely to be the next wave of Mars reconnaissance machines. Dubbed “Au-Spot,” in reference to the common dog name “Spot,” the A.I.-controlled bots were recently developed by Boston Dynamics. Their agility will allow them to explore canyons, caves, and other areas protected from radiation that may be suitable for future colonies.
Robots have also been created to assist astronauts in missions, reducing the need for human beings to spend time conducting lengthy spacewalks or the time spent on monotonous “chores.” For deep-space exploration, A.I. and machine learning are being incorporated into probes that can act fully autonomously, making decisions about what to focus on and what information to gather. That way, the machines will not have to rely on lengthy communication delays from Earth to receive instructions.
Mining is another area that could open up with help from space robots. In September, Beijing-based Origin Space revealed that it was developing a “space mining robot” to test new technologies that would pave the way for potential mining of various near-Earth asteroids. The company is also planning to send a mining probe on the moon in late 2021 or early 2022.
Described as a potential trillion-dollar industry, mining of objects such as asteroids holds promise for providing rich new sources of minerals such as platinum, gold, iridium, palladium, and rhodium. Feasibility has been studied in-depth for at least a decade. Several private companies, such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have been founded to eventually harvest materials from asteroids.
The trouble is, of course, that it would be very, very expensive and difficult. For starters, asteroids must be relatively close to the Earth to make for good mining targets. Then there is the challenge of transporting the materials back to our home planet. Using actual human miners would also be impossible. Only robots would be suitable for the job.
All that said, interest in the prospective venture remains strong. Along with China’s Origin Space, NASA has been taking steps toward establishing space mining as an industry using robotic spacecraft. In 2019, the agency selected a mining bot proposal for further development called the “Mini Bee.” The small craft, designed by Trans Astronautica Corp., works in hive-like configurations with a larger “Queen Bee.” The robots would work together to capture smaller asteroids and bring them closer to Earth.
According to Data Bridge Market Research, the space mining market is expected to grow to an estimated value of $3.28 billion by 2026 despite myriad challenges. The market research firm attributed to acceleration of the industry to an influx of new space research missions, such as the latest Mars mission. Data gathered by scientists, as well as continued leaps forward in A.I. and space robotics, will likely drive the market.