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Telepresence — Our Best Bet For Exploring Space 309

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute recently wrote an opinion piece for the NY Times discussing the limitations of our space technology. He makes the harsh point that transporting human beings to other star systems isn't a reasonable goal even on a multi-generational time frame. However, advances in robotics and data gathering could instead bring the planets and stars to us, and do it far sooner. Quoting: "Sending humans to the stars is simply not in the offing. But this is how we could survey other worlds, around other suns. We fling data-collecting, robotic craft to the stars. These proxy explorers can be very small, and consequently can be shot spaceward at tremendous speed even with the types of rockets now available. Robot probes don't require life support systems, don't get sick or claustrophobic and don't insist on round-trip tickets. ... These microbots would supply the information that, fed to computers, would allow us to explore alien planets in the same way that we navigate the virtual spaces of video games or wander through online environments like Second Life. High-tech masks and data gloves, sartorial accessories considerably more comfortable than a spacesuit, would permit you to see the landscape, touch objects and even smell the air."

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