by Paul Oles
This summer, you can participate in the testing of a robot that will one day be used to explore the moon and Mars. The robot, named NOMAD, will prepare for its space adventure by crawling over the surface of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile this summer-and you can help direct the robot from mission control at Carnegie Science Center.
In this technological first, visitors will use remote control to guide NOMAD as it makes an unprecedented 125-mile trip across the uncharted and potentially dangerous landscape. This desert is one of the driest places on Earth, and the rough terrain is very similar to that found on the moon and Mars. The robot will photograph the desert surface and send these images back to Pittsburgh. The public will see the pictures and control the robot's moves via a special mission control console built by the Science Center and the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
NOMAD is the culmination of the Lunar Rover Initiative, a NASA-sponsored research and development program of CMU's Robotics Institute. The initiative hopes to land a robot on the moon and have it return live panoramic video. As in the NOMAD desert project, the NOMAD lunar project would allow the public to control the robot from a mission control located at a science center or theme park.
Imagine the thrill of being a part of this futuristic lunar landing from the comfort of your seat in Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Planetarium. As the lights dim, you get a sweeping 360-degree view of the Apollo XI lunar landing, and above the black sky, replete with countless stars, you see the sun and the blue-white planet Earth. The panoramic image is being transmitted by the NOMAD robot and, except for the two seconds required for the signal to reach Earth traveling at light speed, you are seeing the moon in real-time. You have been "teleported" to the lunar surface and the scene is so real you can almost feel the chill of this airless world.
After directing NOMAD to look for Neil Armstrong's 1969 footsteps, the audience directs the robot to move northward to probe the crash site of the American Ranger 8 spacecraft and, afterwards, to see how the Surveyor 5 lander is doing, having rested on the lunar surface for over 30 years.
This not-so-far-out experience will one day be possible through "telepresence," an advanced virtual-reality technology that will literally enable people to project their senses beyond the Earth without ever leaving it. Telepresence will be the essence of a whole new family of 21st-century theaters, and the Atacama Desert trek is one significant step in this direction.
Paul Oles is assistant director, Omnimax, Planetarium & Weather Service, at Carnegie Science Center.