A notable development is NASA’s “InSight” lander, which touched down on the surface of Mars this past November. Its mission was ambitious: To unravel secrets about the creation of the planets in our solar system. Crucial to that mission was a broom-length robotic arm. This piece of technology is worth talking about; as it represents a crucial step toward a propitious technological frontier.

Upon landing, the arm was slowly extended to place a number of scientific instruments on the Martian surface. It was also used to drill into the planet’s dusty surface.

Currently, there are only five robotic arms on Mars–the most recent of which was the InSight Lander arm. Myriad features are required to manipulate a robotic arm on the surface of a distant planet–many of which could be handled by AI. Alas. AI has not yet been incorporated into the Mars arms. However, with software (machine learning) and hardware (processing power) now advancing so rapidly, future robotic systems will have some level of autonomy and AI embedded in them, thereby dramatically augmenting their capacity to carry out desired tasks.

New capabilities may change the way humans do things. So let’s talk more about this fascinating technology, and see how advances are being made.

We might bear in mind that Mars is tens of millions of miles from the nearest repair shop. In the event that something goes awry, nobody is around to fix unforeseen problems. Also relevant: In the space industry, sometimes it is necessary to build hardware that functions for years without maintenance…under extreme environmental conditions. Hence there is a vital need for robotics.

Robotics on Mars are forced to contend with unique environments. Mars landers must go through a thin atmosphere and land on a surface where dust is blowing around, creating a turbulent milieu where particles are incessantly impinging on the equipment. When landers reach a destination, they need to be able to work in a day-time and night-time environment, which means withstanding extreme temperature swings–posing unique challenges for any mechanical system.

The Mars InSight lander was unique in that it had prodigious multitasking abilities–an array of sophisticated scientific instruments (i.e. sensors and processors) as well as a robotic arm for placing payloads on the planet’s inhospitable surface. In coming missions, there will need to be a sample-handling arm, for collecting materials from the ground.

But here’s the catch: The next phases of the InSight mission go beyond just Mars. The engineers and scientists at InSight are investigating all the inner planets of our solar system. So what we study on Mars will have applications elsewhere. Current deployments help us understand the cosmos a broader sense, which will inform how we proceed with future projects. In other words: Present Mars endeavors are not just about Mars; they have broader implications for what we can do going forward.

There’s a lot of talk about taking humans to the surface of Mars. It could be decades before we have the requisite capabilities to accomplish that formidable task; but it is something ambitious thinkers are already thinking about. Preparations are in the preliminary stages, progressing in concert with our technological advances. And it is entirely possible that peopled missions could be leap-frogged by robotic technology. After all, much of this is about mitigating risk to humans.

In spite of these obstacles, humans aspire to eventually have extra-terrestrial habitats. For our thirst to explore is unquenchable. One of the most exciting aspects of space robotics is the potential to assemble spacecraft, space telescopes, and other platforms in space. (After all, a spacecraft the size of the space station could never be built and launched on one launch vehicle.) Until we perfect the technology needed to construct these things in space, we will be limited by the size of a launch vehicle.

So it is imperative that the marriage of AI and robotics continues apace, opening up new vistas of possibility for space exploration.