24 October 2013
There’s a plan to colonize Mars. Applications are now being accepted from would-be volunteers. From these, four colonists will be chosen for a one way trip to the red planet. No, this isn’t a NASA Project. This project belongs to a Dutch company, “Mars One.” So, when are the colonists scheduled to leave? About 20 years from now. When you consider that the estimated cost will be 6 billion dollars, you wonder how “Mars One” is planning to finance the project? With a reality TV show. But there’s yet another twist to the financing. The 6 billion dollars will be raised by selling sponsorship/advertising for a reality TV show televised from Mars and staring the four “lucky” colonists who “won” their one-way ticket to the red planet.
Who would want to go on a one-way trip to Mars — 20 years from now? Surprisingly, a lot of people — about 100,000 applicants, to date, have paid the $38 dollar application fee – each hoping (1) to pass the fitness screening to be eligible to make the trip and (2) to win the final selection lottery and be one of the four “lucky” colonists. I’d like to call this “a plan,” but I’m not holding my breath. It would take something more before I’d take a Martian colonial adventure seriously. 
But, then, “something more” happened. Bumblebees and Wheeko, a robotic snake, volunteered for a mission to Mars. This was a game-changer. I knew these were real contenders for a successful colonial mission.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Bumbles and Robo-snake were being seriously considered by NASA and the ESA, respectively, rather than “Mars One.” It also didn’t hurt that both Bumbles and Robo-snake are uniquely fitted to be Martian colonists.
In fact, a study published in Gravitational and Space Biology has demonstrated that bumblebees have “the right stuff.” [image] These, rather rotund, wild bees forage for food in the same wild grass and brush in which they build their nests. I’m sure that, at first, no one saw them as particularly obvious candidates for a trip to Mars. But, then, NASA identified an atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa) as “the ideal” for extraterrestrial facilities. That’s a rather low pressure compared to earth’s normal sea level pressure of 101 kPa. The search was on for fit space travelers and Martian colonists. And “Bumbles” made the cut, and then some. 
While the bumblebee’s cousin, the familiar hive-dwelling honeybee, not only stopped working, but completely lost the ability to fly at an atmospheric pressure of 66.5 kPa, the bumblebee not only thrived at the lower 52 kPa atmospheric pressure, but continued its work, pollinating plants and collecting honey, at its usual pace. When the pressure was dropped below 50 kPa, “Bumbles” continued to work, but at a slower pace. Then, when the pressure was dropped to 30 kPa, the bumblebees lost their ability to fly but, with an amazing display of mettle, these bees kept on working — foraging, pollinating, and gathering honey, more or less, on foot – crawling from bloom to bloom. I think this the kind of bee we need to conquer the Final Frontier. 
Robo-snake, on the other hand, has the obvious advantage of being a robot. [image] So, those conditions necessary to biological organisms are of little importance to this automaton. However, Robo-snake is an odd contender, because he is being considered . . . before he exists.
Although the ESA (European Space Agency) is, more or less, including Robo-snake as a crew member on an upcoming mission to Mars, this particular robotic crew member has not been developed yet. It’s a little strange. But, on second thought, is recruiting a nonexistent crew member to go on a real mission to Mars any stranger than Mars One recruiting real crew members to go on a nonexistent mission to Mars? 
No matter, robo-snake’s older brother is standing-in for his sibling in futuro during the evaluation process. Big brother (named Wheeko) is a robotic snake that looks and moves surprisingly like a real snake. It’s modus operandi is beyond a brief and simple description, but one video is worth a 1,000 words. [video] Wheeko, is composed of ten round metal balls, on the balls are rows of what appear to be smaller balls that roll with motive power and make Wheeko move. With a camera on its “head,” (which is the lead ball), it makes the familiar serpentine movement of its namesake as it travels on the ground.
Wheeko is the subject of a current feasibility study by researchers at the SINTEF Research Institute in Norway and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Until now, the primary purpose of the development of a robotic snake was as a tool to be used on search and rescue missions. As one of the project members, Aksel Transeth, explained, real snakes “can climb rocks and slide through small holes.” It is hoped that a robot with these skills could be used “to find people in a fallen buildings.”
If Wheeko passes all the tests, what will its little brother, the future Martian colonist, be like? Actually, little brother will be different if for no other reason than he has a sidekick. Or, more accurately, he will be a sidekick. But, instead of playing sidekick to his fellow bumblebee colonists, Robo-snake will play sidekick to the more familiar Mars Rover. These vehicles are designed for off-roading in the rough Martian terrain. Yet, however carefully they are directed, they do have a tendency to get stuck. Enter Robo-snake. [image]
Instead of a lone player on the Martian surface, Robo-snake would be a deployable snake robot or an actual arm attached to the Mars Rover. The Rover vehicle could detach Robo-snake to investigate the nooks and crannies of the terrain while allowing the Rover to maintain a safe distance from areas in which the Rover might get stuck. And if the Rover gets stuck, one proposed design would turn Robo-snake into something like the Rover’s tentacle arm. Such an amazingly versatile arm would be able to both push and pull to extricate the Rover if caught in too tight a spot.
So, together, the bumblebees and the Robo-snake may be the first Martian colonists. Of course, they won’t be traveling together. NASA is interested in “Bumbles” and the ESA is interested in Robo-snake. But even if they don’t share the same flight to the red planet, they’ll probably meet when they get there. Right now, Mars isn’t that crowded.
Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois
Best of the Thursday’s