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From Mars With Love

Last week me and some friends popped up to London to take in a few flicks at the BFI London Film Festival. We took in a real gem of a SF flick called Mars. I showed up for the screening a few minutes late, rushed off my feet and stressed out and walked out with a smile on my face. My friends and I found ourselves raving about the movie for the rest of the day.

It’s a unique little movie featuring a unique rotoscoped style (think Walking Life, Through a Scanner Darkly) and a very original take. It’s not your typical rom com, nor is it your typical SF movie. The romance had a slow boil, bumbling true to life feel to it.

The SF was surprisingly well thought out which is the last thing you’d expect from a low budget SF comedy at a film festival. The treatment and attention to detail puts the vast majority of SF films to shame all without getting in the way. The makers of other SF films should be taking notes. It wasn’t all hard SF of course, there were two cutsey elements thrown in for effect.

Unfortunately as of this writing this film doesn’t have distribution yet. However check out it’s site here. It’s currently making the festival circuit and if you’re lucky you might be able to catch a screening. If you get the chance to see this movie I heartily recommend going for it, you won’t regret it.


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Here’s an excellent talk by biologist Willie Smits detailing a sucessful attempt in regrowing a rainforest in a relatively short period of time. This talk also serves as an excellent example for what kinds of approaches do work and which ones don’t.

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Today we’re talking about Carbon Capture and Storage which has been getting a bit of press lately. Personaly I’m skeptical of it, not so much because I doubt it’s usefulness as much because I’m concerned that it could be used to sell dirtier technologies with a half hearted promise that they would be cleaned up later. I paticularly didn’t like the way the phrase “Clean Coal” was tossed around like a football during the American Presidential debates.


Clean Coal reminds me of the claim made by cigarette companies that their new toasted tobacco had rendered their product safe. However there’s a lot more to CCS than just marketing hype so I’ll turn to a pair of commentators who are a bit more knowledgeable than me on the subject.

Chris Godall

chrisgoodallWe need CCS. And we need it soon. It is the only technology that can possibly hold down the emissions of the newly industrializing world. China and India will use coal for their power stations. Without CCS, their need to electricity will destroy the world’s ambitions to start reducing emissions by the middle of the next decade. Even in the UK coal burning power stations contribute about a quarter of the country’s total emissions. Because coal is now the cheapest source of fossil fuel energy, the incentive on power generators to install more coal burning plants is enormous. The only way we can make this acceptable is by rapid roll-out of carbon capture.

Chris Goodall blogs at Carbon Commentary and is the author of The Green Guide for Business.

Charles Robinson

CCS, Carbon Capture and Sequestration is a suite of technologies, some enormously problematic. Broadly speaking, it refers to any technology which can capture and keep carbon out of the atmosphere more or less permanently. This encompasses a wide range of methods, some for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (biochar schemes and the like) and some for preventing its emission in the first place, by capturing the CO2 which woud be released by burning fossil fuels and then storing it.

It is the latter form of CCS which is controversial. The largest application of this type of CCS is likely to be the capture of emissions from coal fired power stations. Ignoring for now the exact method of capture, the CO2 is concentrated and liquefied, and then transported, via pipeline or similar arrangement, to a suitable geological formation, where it will be injected into the ground and where it will, in theory remain. All of the stages of this process have been demonstrated as feasible from an engineering standpoint, although they have not yet been put into practice on an industrial scale or demonstrated as economically feasible. None of the large coal power stations currently under construction anywhere in the world has been designed with CCS in mind, meaning that the capture systems will have to be retrofitted at some future date, as will transportation networks from power plants to the storage formations.

It is estimated that the CC part of the systems will require 25%-40% of the electricity produced by the power station, with the sequestration element adding a further cost depending on how far away the plant is from a suitable site for storage (which, generally, will be a fair distance). The total increase in the cost of electricity produced at a plant equipped with CCS over electricity produced at a conventional coal power station is impossible to gauge particularly accurately, as the technology is still very much at the experimental stage, but is estimated at an increase of between 21% and 91%.

Since the cost of electricity generated by coal is currently comparable with the cost of electricity from wind power, the economic argument for CCS looks weak. The case is worsened by the rapid development and deployment of wind, solar and other renewable sources, and the equally rapid improvements in energy storage techniques which will iron out the intermittencies of renewable energy tech.

The practical argument, which is that coal is readily available and cheap and will therefore inevitably be used by rapidly developing nations such as China and India, is somewhat more compelling, but remember that no commercial power station under construction or on the drawing board makes any provision for CCS technologies, meaning an expensive refit at some future date in order to use prevent that CO2 being emitted. Plus the construction of the infrastructure needed to transport and store the CO2 produced. Plus the cost of commercialisation of all of the above.

All this without even mentioning the environmental damage caused by the mining and transportation of the millions of tonnes of coal to feed all these power stations or the damage caused by the millions of tonnes of mildly radioactive and toxic ash they produce.

So, to sum up, CCS in the form most frequently talked about is a suite of unproven, expensive, technologies whose sole purpose is to enable us as a species to continue one of the most heavily polluting activities we carry out, albeit with greatly reduced emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. It’s not ready now, and will require a huge programme of remedial works to the worlds coal power station stock if it is ever to be of significant use.

As a ‘green’ technology most of the money for the above will probably come from a funding pool shared by genuinely benficial tech such renewables, electricity grid redesign, large scale energy storage etc.

CCS greenwashing? I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, and I’m sure there will be a role for it, simply because the situation is desperate and we’ll be obliged by inertia and the general uselessness of our leaders to do something with all those fossil fuel burning power stations or else totally destroy our beautiful biosphere, but it is on the level of giving a liver transplant to an alcoholic who refuses to stop drinking – an act of desperation which will probably deprive someone else of their chance at life.

Charles Robinson is a Meme Therapy contributor and freelance Sustainability Consultant.

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Gavin A. Schmidt is a climatologist and climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). He works on the variability of the ocean circulation and climate and how changes related to varying forcings relate to variations due to intrinsic (unforced) climate variability, using general circulation models. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us on the subject of climate change.

MT Do you think we’re going to have to change our lifestyles to adapt to or mitigate against climate change?

schmidt_bergen_bwGS That may well be part of the mix – however, all the cycling and recycling in the world isn’t going to deal with the industrial, transportation or power generation sources of emissions. It seems to me that once the cost of emitting carbon gets included in economic decisions then people, companies and governments will try and reduce that cost as much as they can. At that point it will become clearer how emissions can be reduced most efficiently. That may involve cleaner sources of power, carbon sequestration and, yes, some lifestyle changes (taking the light rail rather than a car), but this is not a problem that can be solved solely by individual actions. Just as the ozone depletion problem was not solved by consumers choosing non-CFC aerosol cans….

MT Do you see any major changes in the way we humans move from point A to point b over the next 30 years?

GS It will be different in different places. Europe and European cities already function well using efficient public transport. In the US, there is a lot more potential for improvement. In India and China, there is the possibility of avoiding some of the worst urban planning mistakes associated with car transport, but it is inevitable that car use will increase there. I would hope that more cars will become electric/gas hybirds, but I doubt that there will be a noticeable switch to either
ethanol or hydrogen. Congestion Charges (as in London) and improvements to public transport (especially new light rail systems) may make it easier to leave the car at home.

MT There’s been reports of permafrost thawing in Siberia (link). Have the potential effects of methane being released from this region been taken into account in forecasts of global warming or are those going to have to be rethought?

GS Most of the forecasts you read about do not take this into account explicitly. But the forecasts do generally assume that methane concentrations will continue to rise. Since over recent years the methane has actually been pretty steady (albeit for unknown reasons), there is no obvious sign that permafrost clathrates are yet having a significant effect. So while it is a big unknown, it is still too uncertain or us to to be able to quantify it for the future projections. We are keeping a close eye on that though.


Gavin’s profile (link)
Realclimate.org (link)

Originaly posted June 20th, 2006

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Todays Brain Parade features worst case scenarios and climate change. I tied myself in knots of dread when I first heard of methane venting in the artic. For a while I was dreading that the doomsday scenario James Lovelock had been advancing a few years back involving gigadeaths starting within 10 years (they haven’t started yet but I think it’s only been 8 years since he said that). I’ve been talked down recently which isn’t much of a relief. The enormity of the problem is so enormous that it’s almost easier to think apocalypticaly. So I wanted to explore the utility of worst case and doomsday scenarios and how they should be treated. Here’s the question I presented to our commentators:

Most forecasts project Global Warming as a slow motion catastrophe. However can we safely rule out worst case scenarios (ie rapid, runaway positive feedback) and if not should such scenarios inform our approach to tackling Climate Change?

I, like all our contributors. agree with this statement. However I think these worst case scenarios should be assessed dispassionately. I think it’s a much more compelling and effective argument when framed in those terms.  More compelling that economists talking about the discount rate.

Now on to our commentators:

Mark Lynas

mark-lynasWell, the question is really one of planetary-scale risk-management. What are the costs of acting, versus the risks of not acting? What are the probabilities of catastrophic outcomes, and costs – and likelihood of success – of acting against them. Obviously there are huge uncertainties at every stage – we simply don’t know at what point tipping points may be crossed which will lead to locked-in positive feedbacks. But it’s a pretty safe assumption that the hotter it gets, the more likelihood it is that we’ll find out the hard way. So yes, catastrophic scenarios should of course inform our approach – and personally I think we should be extremely risk-averse when it is our only planetary home and the future of the entire biosphere that will be imperilled if we throw the dice and lose.

Mark Lynas is the author of several books on climate change including Six Degrees.

Caroline Lucas

caroline-lucasThere is a wide range of predictions – though all agree the earth’s climate is heating up, rapidly. We can’t accurately predict the exact effects of climate change, and that’s part of the problem: not only does it allow room for scepticism and division amongst both scientists and politicians, it means our strategies for dealing with it have to focus on the most likely scenarios. But we can’t rule out worst-case scenarios by any means. Indeed recent scientific papers, and news from the Greenland and the North Pole, suggest warming might be happening more rapidly than predicted in any scenario. We need to be on a war footing, and urgently speed up action to cut emissions drastically – say nine per cent cuts year-on-year in industrialised countries, with those countries most responsible for the problem making the deepest cuts . We also need to prepare for the worst impacts, and give serious financial and technical support to developing countries in particular, adapting infrastructure, and creating a fairer and more resilient global society.

Carolyn Lucas is the Green MEP for the UK’s South East Region.

Charles Robinson

I’m not qualified to talk about the likelihood of abrupt climate change in the sense that it is meant here – namely the runaway positive feedback loop kinda thing that that’ll scupper any chance whatsoever the human race has of sorting its problems with the environment out. So I won’t, ‘cos much brainier people are doing that, and what’s more they’re getting paid (for example, SAP 3.4, just released by the US Geological Survey Climate Change Science Program, and available here). Suffice to say, there is a distinctly real probability of some pretty terrifyingly abrupt climate change happening. Things like, oh, the breakup of the Greenland icecap (7 or so metres added to global sea levels). Or the current ongoing droughts in Australia and the South East US being the vanguards of more widespread shifts in rainfall patterns, rendering huge swathes of the worlds agricultural land infertile.
Those are the ones which are considered likely. As in, more likely to happen than not…as in, there’s an outside chance that they might not, but…

Pretty much answers the question at the top of the page, you ask me…

Scarier possibilities for change abound – runaway emission of methane from Arctic clathrate and other deposits, shutdown of the Gulf Stream due to disturbance to the thermohaline circulation, (again, see SAP 3.4 as referenced above), super-hurricanes powerful enough to reach far inland, etc., etc.

We won’t have thought of everything, either…

So, yep, we probably should let such scenarios inform our thinking on climate change and our responses to it…after all, there’s only two ways we can meaningfully respond to climate change, and they’re 1) reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as fast as possible and 2) start drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere as fast as we can, which basically means burying as much biochar as we can, without using any fossil fuels in doing so. I mean, there’s
other things we can do, and there’s lots of ways we can do the 1) of the above, and maybe a few other ways of doing 2), though I’m pretty sceptical of non-biological methods for of extracting and concentrating a gas that (despite our best efforts) is only present in the hundreds of parts per million range…

To reiterate, yes we should worry and yes we should do something about it, because it only means doing what have to do, but with a lot more enthusiasm.

Oh, and the broad details of what we should do about it are pretty clear as well, so that question’s been answered as well. Okay, oversimplification, but it really is just a question of which of the many available options we use.

So, if it’s obvious that we should act, and it’s obvious what we ought to be doing, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that all these problems are probably worse than we think they are, the question really becomes one of why we as a species are so far pretty much doing nothing whatsoever about these problems. Well, not exactly nothing, but when the people in the know are talking about the need to mobilise global resources on a Second World War kinda scale and the people in charge are talking about the need to maybe start doing something, as long as it’s not too expensive and won’t cost them votes, you know there’s a pretty worrying disconnect between the people in charge and the people who understand things (sadly hardly ever seem to be the same people these days…).

Argh… wanted to go off on a rant about how idiot climate change deniers, aided by a media that feels obliged to make every damn thing a debate, even when the debate is long over, are responsible, but I really can’t be bothered. Suffice to say a combination of idiots and selfish bastards are (still) doing as good a job as they can preventing anything being done. Their motives, well, money, power and so on I suppose, but are they really stupid enough to want those things more than a habitable planet?.

I mean, we’re talking about the end of the fucking world here. Most people dead, and the pitiful survivors eking out a meagre existence wherever they can. And it’s started already, and all we have to do to ensure that it happens, that those alive now grow old in a collapsing world and our children never have the chance to see that life can be good, that it needn’t be a struggle every day, is do nothing, just carry on as we are…


Mainly seems to be because people just don’t really believe the problem’s as serious as it is. I mean, viscerally, in the guts, where it’ll hit us when the shit really does hit the fan, and we start looking back on these years as the peak of our civilisation…

I’d like to believe that we’re on the cusp of some kind of general step change in thinking, with the profound disconnect between the utter, deadly, imperative to act now, with more alacrity than the species has ever collectively shown on anything. Who knows?
It could actually happen. But just about the only thing people seem to do en
and quickly is panic, which ain’t too helpful.

When I started writing this it seemed the obvious thing to do would be to make a brilliant film, bringing home on a visceral level the awful, horrific future we are bequeathing our children and their children, children’s children, and so on…I mean, we’re either the generation which destroys the planet, or the generation which saves it.

So, that next step, brilliant film…well, thankfully it appears the effort may have already been made. ‘The Age of Stupid‘, opening weekend in the UK of the 20th of March. See how it was made on the Guardian website here.
A retrospective look back on these years, from the perspective of an archivist (Pete Postlethwaite), living alone in a devastated 2055.

The only problem? It’s only opening in a few cinemas around the country. So, our course of action becomes clear – all of us, everyone we know, has to go, on that first weekend, and make it a hit. Buy ten tickets and give them out at the door, or better, give them to your friends and family who don’t yet appreciate what we face. Let money be made from it, let it cause a stir, and the millions of people who need to have the scales fall from their eyes might just…

At least it’s a start, it’s something you can do, and it’s now…

Charles Robinson is a co-contributor to Meme Therapy.

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This week’s question revolves around near future spaceflight, should it be manned or unmanned?

In case you’ve missed them Jose’s original piece is here and Charlie’s is here.

Ken Macleod:
In terms of immediate priorities, there’s no question that unmanned missions are far more cost-effective. At the moment Cassini is showing us yet again that every planet, moon and lump of rock in the Solar System is not only unique but has surprising features. The Mars robot explorers have shown us the same. But they’ve also raised questions that would be very easy to answer if only we had people there. In the longer term, we have to go ourselves.

Ken MacLeod is part of a new generation of British science fiction writers, who specialise in hard science fiction and space opera.

Alan Bond:
Ask an antarctic researcher if he/she could be cost effectively replaced by a robot without any loss of understanding of his findings. It is the cost of space transprtation which drives this sterile debate and it is that problemwe need to solve. Robots should always remain our assistants, not our substitutes.

Alan Bond is Managing Director of Reaction Engines Ltd [1] and associated with Project Daedalus, Blue Streak missile, HOTOL and Skylon.

Robert J. Sawyer:
Well, I agree with Charlie. Spaceflight isn’t just about economics; indeed, I decry the worldview that says that all things should be reduced to the bottom line. Space travel is an ennobling adventure; it’s part of our reason for being as a species. As the closing title card of Star Trek: The Motion Picture said, “The Human Adventure is Just Beginning.”In fact, I sum up a lot of my thoughts on this in my own novel Hybrids, which contains this speech on this topic from a fictitious US president.

Robert J Sawyer is a rockin Canadian hard SF writer

Joe Haldeman:
Being an astronomer by training, I’m prejudiced in favor of unmanned exploration — the scientific return per dollar is orders of magnitude greater than you can expect from manned spaceflight.

Add to that the near certainty that George Bush’s “return to the moon” pledge is just so much vapor. There’s no money. There wouldn’t be enough money even if he rescinded the tax cuts his wealthy pals enjoy.

Add to _that_ the fact that the shuttle has always been a dangerous juryrigged compromise vehicle, and now it’s a geriatric one. Incredibly, there’s no real successor on line; it will be at least eight years before one leaves a launch pad.

I’m greatly in favor of eventual manned flight, and I do believe that the ultimate destination of humanity is space. But the next step is a technology that will allow the transfer of large masses to Low Earth Orbit economically — perhaps the space elevator; perhaps something else — because nothing permanent is going to happen until cislunar space offers goods and services that can’t be had more cheaply on Earth.

I’d like to be proven wrong.

Joe Haldeman has been shot on three different occasions. We don’t know why, he seems nice enough to us.

Larry Niven:
You and Charles are rehashing an argument I’ve watched develop over many decades.

In the 60s I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t land on the Moon with Apollo 1. Why wait until 11? Okay, that was naive. The machines have to be developed and tested, and the men don’t get there without the machiness. What I notice is that your arguments (for the machines) are clear, precise, and rich in hindsight. Charles’s arguments (for sending astronauts) are very much based on postulates and theory, and lead way around Robin Hood’s barn.

And what I notice from my lifespan is that the machines, from magic telescopes to rovers and Voyagers, have shown us the universe in detail I could only imagine, and wrongly. Today’s plans don’t put men on Mars within my expected lifespan, and they could be cancelled at the stroke of an election.

But maybe I can hang on long enough to see Pluto. I’ve come to bet on the machines.

Larry Niven’s Science Fiction classics delayed the loss of Jose’s virginity

Greg Bear:
Robots will not have the capacity for a sense of wonder for many decades, I suspect. This aspect of human experience in space–the prospect of personal awe and discovery in the midst of infinite mystery–will propel funding far more over the long haul then robotic exploration, as marvelous as that is. People want to go and explore, not just sit and watch.

Greg Bear is a science fiction author. His work has covered themes of galactic conflict (Forge of God books), artificial universes (Eon series) and accelerated evolution (Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Darwin’s Children).

John Baez:
As we speak, unmanned space missions are exploring the moons of Saturn, heading to Pluto and the dark reaches of the Kuiper belt, and finding evidence that the Universe is mostly made of stuff we don’t understand: dark matter and dark energy. Meanwhile, people aboard the International Space Station have a full-time job just keeping the thing repaired. Promised technological spinoffs like crystals grown in space aren’t really amounting to much. The crew made news recently by throwing a space suit stuffed with rags and a radio transmitter into Earth orbit, just so ham radio fans could track it: a clear sign of diminishing returns.

Why are we even bothering with manned space flight? As a character says in Charles Stross’ wonderful novel Accelerando, “NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!”. This stunt, which will cost billions if we don’t stop it, is the scientific equivalent of putting a goldfish bowl on top of Mount Everest.

It would be much smarter to spend the money creating cyborgs who don’t breathe and can stand hard radiation; these guys will actually enjoy space travel. We can do this and we can do it quicker than you might guess. In the meantime, let’s send machines into space, like the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. This project, if funded, has a decent chance of seeing gravitational ripples left over from the Big Bang. It’s the only known way to see through the wall of fire that cleared up when the Universe was 400,000 years old, back to the first microseconds of history. And it’s cheaper than sending canned primates to Mars.

John Baez is a a mathematical physicist who specializes in quantum gravity and n-categories.

Bill Gawne:
As a one-time Astronaut Applicant, and a working space scientist who
works with unmanned science missions, my opinion is that the best space policy is to embrace the power of “and” when it comes to the manned/unmanned mission question. Unfortunately, it has become customary to pit the one against the other. Right now good unmanned missions are being cancelled and delayed because the Powers that Be have decided once again that “science must bear the cost” of the manned space program. This is short sighted, and among many bad things it turns the space community upon itself. We’re being divided in order to conquer us. I’m confident that President Bush’s Moon/Mars initiative will go nowhere, but in the process of going nowhere it will cause a number of good science programs to be cancelled.

There *are* scientifically sound reasons to put people into space. As others have pointed out, there are also reasons which transcend science. All of these are legitimate reasons to expend our time and treasure on a progressive and reasonable manned space program. It would be nice if someone had such a thing. The current US manned space program suffers from a number of
accumulated problems which have origins back in the late 1940s, and which have become entrenched policy over the course of successive administrations.

Space scientists resent the long-standing practice of raiding the space science programs for money to support the manned space program. Space scientists rightly point out that the International Ultraviolet Explorer accomplished more, at lower cost, than the two ASTRO missions flown aboard Space Shuttle flights. This is but one example of misguided efforts to tie science missions which could be performed by unmanned spacecraft to the manned space program.

NASA is fundamentally an engineering establishment. Scientists have always been in a minority at NASA, and science has never been the main driver in NASA organizational decision making.

While I’m not entirely sure that transfering space science funding to the NSF would be the best solution, I think it would be better than the status quo. NOAA has a nice partnership with NASA whereby they get NOAA weather satellites launched and into orbit. The NSF and NASA could develop a similar partnership that would insure continuting integration, test, and launch
support from NASA while moving the mission operations and data analysis funding out of NASA’s budget into the NSF where it more naturally belongs. NASA would be left with manned spaceflight and its too often neglected aeronautical research mission.

Bill Gawne works for a NASA contractor in Maryland and teaches physics and astronomy at Towson University and is a top bloke

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by Jose Garcia

The last twenty years of spaceflight have been a mix of wonder and frustration. Manned spaceflight, once an inspiring force for all mankind in the heady days of Apollo, has been taken over by white elephants like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Meanwhile unmanned spaceflight often seen as a bit part is now stealing the show. While astronauts on the space shuttle have been making conference calls to school children the Hubble Space Telescope has changed the way we look at the universe. And as robotics steathily advances at a breathtaking pace that disparity will grow even larger.

The main problem with manned spaceflight isn’t one of technology but of finances and politics. Manned missions require massive spending commitments that span administrations. This ensures that they become political footballs to their detriment. JFK’s famous rallying cry for a manned mission to the moon came at the height of the cold war and enjoyed broad support that transcended political factions. A manned mission to Mars enjoys no such advantage. Several american presidents have uttered their own rallying cries for a mission to Mars which have all invariably dissipated only to be co-opted by future presidents with equally vacous calls. This situation isn’t likely to change until manned spaceflight either becomes dramatically less expensive or as high a priority as a nation arming itself. I don’t see either happening any time soon.

Unmanned spacecraft on the other hand are growing in sophistication. Deep Space 1 used a novel solar electric propulsion system while manned space propulsion seems to have advanced little since 1970. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, will be constructing their Furoshiki satellite using two spider like robots. Nasa is developing a robonaut with an eerie resemblance to Boba Fett that promises a level versatility once thought the exclusive domain of humans. Meanwhile manned spaceflight has been preoccupied with spending vast amounts of resources delivering humans into orbit only for them to hit the on switch on otherwise automated experiments.

For the cost of a single manned Mars mission we can deploy an armada of robots and unmanned spacecraft throughout the solar system. While none of these missions taken on their own is as inspiring as a video of astronauts walking on another world they’ll net us much more science and trial more technologies. These unmanned missions also give us room to take risks and make mistakes that we couldn’t with missions carrying human cargo.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingRobots aren’t taking the place of humans in space. Cheap spaceflight will eventualy arrive and when it does humans will eventually be leaving their footprints all over the solar system. Until then robots will be paving the way, exploring and allowing us to test new technologies. And when humans do move out into the solar system they’ll undoubtedly be accompanied by a host of indispensible robotic familiars. It won’t be a question of humans or robots but how we can make best use of both. For the next few decades though, the stage belongs to R2D2.

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