After a journey of seven years and more than 2bn miles, a 1.7bn US-European mission is preparing for the unknown. Cassini, a Nasa spacecraft the size of a truck, carrying Huygens, a European robot not much bigger than a commercial washing machine, will complete one more preparatory loop around Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.
Then, on Christmas Day, Huygens will be released, spinning five times a minute, on a collision course with the only moon in the solar system that has an atmosphere. Cassini will fly past Titan, its receiver turned towards Titan's dense cloud tops to receive the last messages from Huygens as it disappears into the freezing hydrocarbons.
European scientists admit they still have no idea of what Huygens will see on the way down, whether it will land with a splash, a thud or a squelch, or how it will perish.
Cassini's instruments have picked up what might be evidence of topography: seas of frozen methane, huge rafts or low hills of solid chemical ice, perhaps even volcanic flows of ammonia. At -177C (-287F), Titan is cold enough for methane to exist simultaneously as gas, solid and liquid.
Christophe Sotin, a planetary scientist based at Nantes in France, believes that Titan could have an ice sheet over an ocean of liquid water, washing in turn over a second layer of thick ice that sheathes a core of rock and iron.
If Titan has liquid water, it has one of the ingredients for life. The highly reactive mix of hydrocarbons could be another: methane, ammonia and other gases could be the raw material of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
On January 14, Huygens will hit the upper atmosphere of Titan at about 4 miles a second. Its heat shield will absorb enough of the energy of impact to slow the probe.
Then the first of three parachutes will help it brake to a relatively leisurely descent through the atmosphere. A microphone will tune in to the sounds of Titan, a camera will collect snapshots of the journey to oblivion through the orange-colored clouds, and sensors will start making chemical analyses of the atmospheric density and chemistry.
Instruments will take the temperature, measure the howling winds, and record the moon's thunder and lightning.
It will pump its discoveries across 37,000 miles of space to Cassini, which will relay the precious data back to Earth. Anxious scientists will have no way of changing the experiment. Even at the speed of light it will take more than an hour to transmit the first bleep to Earth and Huygens will be dead by that time.
The impact may not be immediately fatal: Huygens will hit the deck at five meters a second, about the speed of a human jumping off a chair.
"We do not know what we are going to land in," says John Zarnecki, of the Open University. "We might squelch down. Or land on icy surface, with mountains in the background."
As it rides the second big wave in the development of robotics, Korea needs to create more realistic strategies to meet the demands of a rapidly growing market, a Samsung Economic Research Institute report said yesterday. The institute's report offered its observations on the current robotics industry and what Korea must do to stay one step ahead of competitors. Korea is now undergoing a second robotics "boom," the report said. The first one was in the early 1980s, when robots were employed to automate factories.
The institute asked related organizations for their estimates on the size of the global robotics markets by 2020. Although the numbers differed, the lowest estimate was $53.5 billion. At the high end, the Commerce Ministry predicted the market would reach $1.5 trillion.
The research institute said Korea was in danger of falling behind in the robotics industry even though it has the fifth largest robot market in the world for industrial robots used for manufacturing. The problem, however, is that most companies that have the technology to make robots or those that are investing in developing related technology are small or medium firms that are short on capital.
Moreover, those that have been developing robots have only focused on making industrial robots and lack basic technology in making other types. In the past few years, start-ups have begun developing robots for other purposes such as education, entertainment, and vacuum cleaners, but their sales are very low. As of 2003, Korean robotics sales, excluding the industrial, amounted to a mere 10 billion won.
"Less than 20 percent of core parts are made in Korea, and technology does not live up to consumers' demands," said researcher Shin Hyun-am. Technology is not the only problem. Especially with high growth expected in the household robotics market, there are no laws regarding safety standards or for compensation in case of accidents.
The institution presented several ideas that Korea would have to adopt to create a successful robotics market: more general research that could lead to several applied functions instead of one particular function, raising social recognition of robots through exhibitions, using more robots in public services, and conducting studies in a broad range-such as design, psychology, and marketing.
PercepTek Inc. is working with the U.S. Army to keep soldiers out of harm’s way by replacing a good number of them with robots.
Earlier this month, the Littleton-based company received a $7.9 million contract from the Army to develop a system to control multiple unmanned air vehicles and ground vehicles.
The company, which employs 25 people, has 30 months to develop a robotics system that will support soldiers operating in urban areas. It will be demonstrated at Fort Benning, Ga., in the fall of 2006.
Working with partners like Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics Corp. and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PercepTek is developing systems that could automate the most cumbersome or dangerous aspects of military work -- such as reconnaissance and chain-supply missions.
"About 70 percent of military operations deal with logistics," said Jim Lowrie, president of PercepTek. "There’s a lot of room for automation."
PercepTek rigs SUVs and tractors with computers, sensors and other equipment that can help navigate vehicles through roads and rugged terrain with little or no assistance from human beings. The company tests its gear at a 1,200-acre ranch in Sedalia.
The technology that PercepTek is developing could allow a convoy of manned vehicles delivering food and supplies to be led by a single driver, Lowrie said.
Jeff Jaczkowski, team leader of the U.S. Army’s Tank, Automotive, Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, Mich., said while there are still limitations in urban deployment of unmanned vehicles, the military is increasingly focused on robotics as a way to improve soldier safety. He said a majority of casualties in the Iraq War involve roadside attacks.
While PercepTeks funding has increased from about $250,000 in 2000 to an expected $10 million in 2005, Lowrie claimed the company hasn’t benefited from the "war on terrorism."
"If anything, Sept. 11 has had a negative effect," he said. "A lot of funds have been sucked into the war."