Beyond by Chris Impey

Beyond by Chris Impey

Author:Chris Impey
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Published: 2015-06-16T16:00:00+00:00


Remote Sensing


Extending Our Senses

What if we could have the experience of space travel without actually making the journey?

The cost and difficulty of protecting fragile humans and sending them vast distances through space suggest that we should find a different way to explore space. To see an alternative, look at the evolution of video games.

Pac-Man was the most famous arcade video game of all time. Released in 1980, the game had the player steer a small colored icon through a maze eating dots. Pac-Man’s popularity eclipsed that of space shooter games like Space Invaders and Asteroids, and it’s been estimated that by the end of the twentieth century, ten billion quarters had been dropped in Pac-Man slots. In 2000, a new computer game came out in which the player could create virtual people, houses, and towns and watch their cartoon characters live their virtual lives. The Sims sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. If we think of how far video games came in twenty years, from the primitive graphics of Pac-Man to the cartoonish but quasi-realistic 3-D graphics of The Sims, imagine what another twenty years will bring. A hint of that came in 2014 with the release of the Oculus Rift, a gaming helmet that immerses a player in 3-D virtual reality.1 The best sense of the experience is the dramatic opening sequence of the 3-D movie Gravity.

The future of Solar System exploration may lie in telepresence, a set of technologies that allow a person to feel that he or she is in a remote location. Videoconferencing is one familiar and simple form of this technology. The market for projecting images and sound to connect meeting participants from around the world is growing 20 percent a year and is worth nearly $5 billion. Skype video calls now account for a third of all international calls, a staggering 200 billion minutes a year. Other examples include using robots with sonar to explore the ocean floor or robots with infrared sensors to explore caves. The robot provides the “eyes and ears” for an operator who doesn’t have to leave the comfort of an office or home.

When we “look” at Mars through the camera eye of the Curiosity rover or “sniff” the atmosphere with its spectrometer, we are using a form of telepresence. NASA has used red–green stereoscopic imaging on all of its recent rovers, but it missed a big chance to grab the public eye when it failed to build a 3-D high-definition video camera into the Curiosity rover in time for launch. Film director James Cameron had pitched the camera to give Earthlings a “you are there” immediacy as the rover trundled around the red planet.2

A lot has changed since the last Apollo astronaut walked on the Moon. At the time of the first Moon landing, real-time, complex decision making had to be carried out by people. Now, robots and machines have impressive capabilities, so they can be remotely controlled by scientists at great distances.

Planetary scientists have used remote sensing for some forty years.


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