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June 21, 2017

ASU professor and colleagues suggest a new approach to scientific exploration that they call exploration telepresence

When Apollo astronauts on the moon spoke with Mission Control on Earth, there was a noticeable time gap between a statement from Tranquility Base and its immediate acknowledgment from Houston. The gap lasted almost three seconds, or 10 times longer than human reaction times would account for.

What was happening? The answer is simple: space. The moon orbits far enough from Earth that light (and radio) take 1.3 seconds each way to travel the distance. At exploration targets farther away, the delay increases; for exploring Mars, signals take between 5 and 40 minutes, depending on the varying distance between the two planets.

"During the Apollo missions, the astronauts were making scientific observations and relaying what they saw back to scientists on Earth. Both were collaborating on decisions about observations and which samples to collect and bring back to Earth to yield the most scientific value," said Kip Hodges, Foundation Professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

"This worked reasonably well for lunar explorations, but the time delay is likely to dramatically reduce the quality and scientific value of such collaborations in exploring faraway places like Mars."

So far, Hodges notes, fieldwork is being done remotely on Mars by scientists on Earth using robotic tools such as the Curiosity rover. But it's slow.

"Even though signals commanding observations and measurements take only minutes or tens of minutes to reach Mars, a single research activity on Mars, from command to data return, can take a day or more," he said.

In the June 21 issue of the journal Science Robotics, Hodges and collaborators Dan Lester at Exinetics and Robert Anderson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggest a new approach to scientific exploration that they call exploration telepresence.

"To the extent that much scientific research is a process where awareness drives action," the authors say, "the communications delay between humans on Earth and planetary exploration sites is limiting."

The ideal is to keep these delays, or "latencies," within the length of human reaction times. One approach is to have the astronaut scientists working directly on the surface of a planet. But landing humans and keeping them safe is an expensive and dangerous strategy.

A safer and less expensive approach, according to the authors, may be exploration science using telepresence, a strategy widely used on Earth now for activities as delicate and demanding as surgery.

"Telepresence means humans operating robotic systems from a distance close enough where the delay between human action and the robotic response is a fraction of a second," Hodges explained.

For Mars research, astronauts might go to Mars orbit, but not to the surface. From orbit, the communications travel time would be such that an astronaut/scientist could work with a robotic surrogate, experiencing the surface environment virtually, and doing scientific investigations as if she or he were on the ground.

Moreover, humans in Mars orbit could control instruments in real time at many different sites across the planet. And by preventing contamination of Mars with terrestrial biology, exploration telepresence from orbit also offers advantages over in situ human explorers.

While the authors add that scientific research by humans working directly on the other planetary surfaces is the ultimate goal, exploration telepresence could be an important next step.

“Today we do good science on Mars using long time-delay telerobotics, but we could do much better science much more quickly with humans on the surface,” Hodges said. “Exploration telepresence would be a reasonable compromise until that day comes."

Moreover, he said, "There are important targets for scientific exploration for which we currently don't have the technology to land humans safely. Exploration telepresence could greatly expand the number of destinations where humans can do great science."


Top photo: When scientists control Mars rover Curiosity, the turnaround time from deciding to examine a rock to getting the raw data back from the rover is one day at a minimum, due to the time delay for sending a command and getting a reply from the rover. But astronaut-scientists in Mars orbit could one day control, in real time, telerobotic landers, rovers and other surrogates all over the Martian surface. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Robert Burnham

Science writer , School of Earth and Space Exploration


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ASU empowers young people who commit to a career of teaching

As schools struggle to hire teachers, ASU reaches out to future educators.
June 22, 2017

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College a sponsor of Educators Rising event in Phoenix

As many schools in Arizona are struggling to hire enough teachers this summer, Arizona State University is reaching out to support hundreds of high school students who want to be educators.

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU is a sponsor of the Educators Rising National Conference, a gathering of hundreds of young people and professional teachers. The event will be held at the Phoenix Convention Center on Friday through Monday. Educators Rising is a nationwide program that provides support and training to future and current teachers.

ASU faculty, staff, students and alumni will talk about teaching and give practical advice on affording college. On Sunday night, the teachers college will hold a huge dance party for the teens at the Tempe campus, according to Karina Cuamea, assistant director of undergraduate recruitment for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“We stress to them that this is the most important profession you can do, and we make them feel empowered by that,” she said. “We tell them that we’re here to support them, and that teaching is a leadership position and an innovative profession.”

Carol Basile, dean of the Teachers College, will give opening remarks at the conference on Friday, and the keynote speaker on Saturday is Daniela Robles, an alumna of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the director of teaching and learning in the Balsz School District in Phoenix.

Moesha Crawford, a student ambassador for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, will talk to future teachers at the Educators Rising National Conference in Phoenix.

 Teaching has been in the spotlight in Arizona for the past few years as many have left the profession and schools deal with hiring problems.

In May, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU released a report that highlighted some of the issues: Forty-two percent of Arizona teachers hired in 2013 were no longer teaching in an Arizona public school by 2016, and, when adjusted for statewide cost-of-living, elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation.

In one of the most alarming findings, the report said that Arizona is losing more teachers each year than it is producing from its three state universities.

That’s why it’s important to recognize teenagers who have already decided to make that leap, according to Cuamea.

“When they say, ‘We want to change the world,’ we will help them with that,” she said.

At one conference panel, students will learn how the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College provides hands-on training for teacher candidates through iTeachAZ, its innovative program that places college students in a classroom with a mentor teacher for a full academic year.

Moesha Crawford, a junior at ASU, will participate in a panel called “What to Expect When You’re Becoming a Teacher.” She’s an ambassador for the teachers college and was part of Educators Rising when she was a student at Washington High School in Phoenix.

“It’s a great network for students so they can understand that there are other people like them,” said Crawford, who has wanted to be a teacher since she was a child.

“I used to play school with my siblings and draw on the TV with dry-erase markers,” she said.

“In sixth grade, I had a teacher who actually believed in me, and that changed my perspective on everything.”

Click here for details on the conference.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now