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A giant leap: Robots or astronauts?

  • Story Highlights
  • Changing attitudes to sending humans into space
  • Whether science can achieve more through unmanned space exploration
  • Using telescopes and robots to search for other life
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By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Can everyone be an astronomer? It certainly seems that way, especially with some of the latest tools at our fingertips, like Google Sky, which allows Internet users to navigate through a digitized map of space. But some say virtual astronomy is not just for amateurs and should also be the way forward for professional space exploration. A future of virtual astronauts, too.

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The future? The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor of Hubble.

Bob Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland, believes that virtual space exploration using telerobots (which humans control from the ground) is a better solution than sending astronauts, which he calls a waste of resources. "We've gone about as far as we can with manned space missions," Park says. "We could go to Mars at enormous expense but what would a human do when he got there? We can't do much locked in a space suit. There isn't much to hear except a very low rumble from the Martian wind. The only sense that would be available to us is our eyes and we can build robots with much better eyes than humans. Already, the little rovers on Mars right now can focus in on a distant mountain or a grain of sand. We can build telescopes on our robots with any sort of visual capability that we want."

To take man to Mars? Or to take us to Mars via a robot (which we are doing already)? Park says there is little dissent in the scientific community about which is better for science, although he concedes there is an element of romance lost by using robots. "Sense of adventure is the only thing going for manned space travel," Park says. "But it's time to have a grown-up attitude to adventure. If you want adventure, go bungee jumping."

Director of the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland, Ian Robson agrees that the science points us away from manned space travel. "You can always achieve more by robotic missions," Robson says. "If I had the budget, I would spend it on robotic missions. But if I was a politician I would have to think again."

Certainly, the manned space mission has been what's captured the public's imagination in the past. "The cultural experience of watching the Apollo landing was so dramatic," Robson says, "but if we all switched on our television sets today to see the first person land on Mars and career around, maybe it wouldn't have such an impact."

That could be because there are so many more ways of experiencing space exploration today, like the recently launched Google Sky, described as a 'virtual telescope'. It is the latest feature from the mapping service Google Earth but instead of focusing in on our planet, Google Sky allows Internet users to turn their zoom around and explore space, with the ability to navigate around over 100 million individual stars and 200 million galaxies. "We thought we could use the same base technology (as Google Earth) but put it in reverse and look outwards," says Ed Parsons, Google's Geospatial Technologist.

The images and information on Google Sky are all available elsewhere but their software stitches together in one place a collective knowledge, from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Digital Sky Survey Consortium and NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute.

"We'll bring in imagery that may have been produced by NASA from the space telescope, from terrestrial telescopes," Parsons says, "and show you pictures of nebulae, of distant galaxies, of the planets as they move throughout the year."

Given that 250 million people have downloaded Google Earth, which was launched less than three years ago, this service also looks destined to become a popular resource. "It's a one-stop shop under a very reputable banner," says ATC's Ian Robson. "And don't forget, it's also free!"

Dr Francisco Diego, Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, says access to space has suddenly opened up. "There are no limits," Diego says. "When you put this in the hands of millions of people, this is public outreach for science in a way that is going to be very revolutionary."

Bob Park agrees tools like Google Sky make astronomy more accessible and that is something he believes in at all levels. "One of the things that pleases me most is how democratic this is," says Park. "When we send rovers to Mars, we can go to the web and see what the rover is seeing instead of sending inarticulate beings up there to tell us what's going on. We can see it for ourselves. Everyone can be part of that."

That's not the only argument for a future of unmanned space exploration. Park points out that the price of manned missions is staggering. "It costs more to send a human to the moon than it does to send the rovers to Mars," Park says. "If we invested the money from the manned space program into telescopes, we would be way ahead of where we are now. Our robotic missions are going great."

Park says now is the perfect time to push for a future of robots and telescopes. "I think the public is sort of tired of the manned space program and today's kids are different. They're cyber-kids. Robots are a very natural idea for kids today and we should be capitalizing on this. What we should be doing now is building far more powerful telescopes to search for life out there. That's going to tell us a lot more about ourselves."

Using robots and telescopes may not be as sexy as seeing astronauts trawling around a Martian landscape but it is generally accepted it will be better value for money. Our greatest quest -- the search for other life -- has so far been fruitless. That should continue to motivate us to keep looking upwards, whether down the barrel of a telescope or at the monitor of our home computer. Whether it will also be through the visor of a spacesuit is still to be decided. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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