The Hedgehogs Of Phobos, And Some Thoughts On Robotics

If NASA scientists get their way, we’ll soon be exploring the Martian moon Phobos using small, hedgehog-like robots.

Phobos is tiny — more of an asteroid than the Moon we see in the evening sky — and very rugged.  It’s a low-gravity environment, though, which means it’s an attractive candidate for a mission where materials are gathered and then actually physically returned to Earth for testing and analysis.  The tests would allow us to determine whether Phobos is, in fact, a wandering asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, or whether it is part of Mars that broke off long ago.  Either answer would help us better understand the solar system and how it developed.

But how to explore such a small, low-gravity object and figure out where to do the gathering?  Wheel-oriented devices tend to lose traction and spin uncontrollably under such conditions.  So, scientists and engineers are developing a spiky device, like a hedgehog, that could precisely navigate the surface of Phobos by spinning, hopping, and tumbling.  The hedgehog — will it be called Sonic? — would serve as a scout, gathering data that would allow for a follow-up mission.

Robotics is an interesting field, because it combines cutting-edge technological advances with creative problem-solving.  With robots, you aren’t wedded to standard forms.  If a wheeled device doesn’t work under the circumstances, you can try some other form that might work better.  It might be a spiky hedgehog, or a spinning disk, or something else.  The design freedom that robotic engineers have must be liberating, and challenging — and probably fun, too!

Old sci-fi fans are waiting for the day when every household has a humanoid robot to do the boring chores.  That day may be far off, but the reality is that we all are using robotic technology more and more frequently — in cars, in household appliances, and in factories.  I recently saw a mainstream, prime- time TV commercial for a robotic vacuum cleaner.  I don’t know how it’s selling, but maybe the days of robotic members of the family aren’t that far off, after all.

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