Finding ET may require giant robotic leap

Apr 18, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Autonomous, self-replicating robots -- exobots -- are the way to explore the universe, find and identify extraterrestrial life and perhaps clean up space debris in the process, according to a Penn State engineer, who notes that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- SETI -- is in its 50th year.

"The basic premise is that must be highly efficient, cost effective, and autonomous as placing humans beyond is fraught with political economic, and technical difficulties," John D. Mathews, professor of electrical engineering, reported in the current issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

If aliens are out there, they have the same problems we do, they need to conserve resources, are limited by the and they may not even be eager to meet us, according to Mathews.

He suggests that "only by developing and deploying self-replicating -- and the incumbent communications systems -- can the human race efficiently explore even the , let alone the vast reaches of the , Oort Cloud, and beyond."

Mathews assumes that any extraterrestrial would need to follow a similar path to the stars, sending robots rather than living beings, which would explain why has not succeeded to date.

"If they are like us, they too have a dysfunctional government and all the other problems plaguing us," said Mathews. "They won't want to spend a lot to communicate with us."

It is extremely difficult to broadcast into the galaxy and requires vast resources. need to emanate in every direction to fill the sky, and the energy requirement to broadcast throughout space is quite high.

"Current infrared lasers can communicate across our solar system," said Mathews. "The problem in terms of SETI is they are highly directed beams."

Point-to-point communications using infrared signaling requires less power, but the signals are extremely directional. If ET is using laser-generated infrared signaling, we would never notice their signals because they are so tightly targeted to their destinations.

Mathews suggests that if human exploration is not possible, robots could go where many people do not want to go and do what many do not want to do, not only on Earth, but also in space.

To minimize the cost, he suggests that the initial robots be manufactured on the moon to take advantage of the resources and the one-sixth gravity. He notes that we have the technology to create these exobots now, except for a compact power source. To create a network of autonomous robots capable of passing information to each other and back to earth, the vehicles must be able to identify their exact location and determine the time. With these two bits of knowledge, they should be able to determine where all the other robots near them are and target them with an infrared laser beam carrying data.

"The expensive part of launching anything is escaping the surface of Earth and its gravity well," said Mathews. "It would also be easier to target the in near Earth orbit and in geosynchronous orbit and even recycle it."

Initially, the exobots would serve two purposes: clear existing debris and monitor the more than 1,200 near Earth asteroids that are particularly hazardous in that they closely approach Earth during their orbits.

"As a first step, we really should launch robot vehicles to learn something about these asteroids and to place beacons on them for identification and tracking," said Mathews.

Ultimately, the network of exobots -- self-replicating, autonomous and capable of learning -- will spread through the solar system and into the galaxy, using the resources they find there to continue their mission. Communicating with infrared lasers is communicating at the speed of light, which is the fastest we can hope to achieve.

"Our assumption in the is that ET wants to be found," said Mathews. "But who has energy resources to spend trying to wave their metaphorical hand across the galaxy?"

He said it is more likely that one of our exobots will intercept a signal from one of theirs if we are to make first contact.

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User comments : 6

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3.8 / 5 (4) Apr 18, 2012
So using machines to find machine life - as we will most likely become in 1000 years or so - seems appropriate. But if we are using these von neumann machines for this purpose, chances are that others have already permeated the universe with them, and that we have already been discovered, and perhaps visited. And catalogued. And are being monitored. Why would we expect to know about it?

If intelligence is rare perhaps we are being husbanded, for our own good.
Glyndwr
5 / 5 (3) Apr 18, 2012
imagine all intelligent life quickly (relatively) escapes this universe once evolved! and we are left alone to catch up ;)
dan42day
4 / 5 (4) Apr 19, 2012
find and identify extraterrestrial life and perhaps clean up space debris


Find and identify extraterrestrial life and . . . . clean up . . . debris

Probe for biological infestations, destroy that which is not perfect. I am Nomad.
Birger
3 / 5 (2) Apr 19, 2012
If machine intelligence dominates the universe, it might prefer cold outer solar system bodies or planets of cold "brown dwarf" systems where ambient temperatures favor superconductivity.
CardacianNeverid
5 / 5 (2) Apr 19, 2012
"If they are like us, they too have a dysfunctional government and all the other problems plaguing us" -text

By 'us', I assume you mean the US? There are plenty of other governments around the world that are far, far more rational.
krundoloss
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
I am reminded of an episode of the show "Lexx" where autonomous, self replicating robots ran wild and consumed enough matter in the galaxy to create a gravity well that sucked everything in. We probably couldn't build anything that dangerous or reliable! I like the idea, we need to start doing space manufacturing, and the moon seems like a good place to setup shop. Hopefully we can get this going before 2050!