Watching NASA’s Perseverance rover touch down on the Red Planet this week, it was impossible not to be struck by a sense of awe at humanity's scientific achievements in our race to the stars. The spectacle invited us to dwell on our place in the universe — and the countless ways in which we reach toward even the most distant frontiers.
It also brought to mind a pressing question. If I were dropped in Jezero crater with a pressurized spacesuit, could I defeat NASA’s mighty rover in hand-to-hand — or at least hand-to-robot-arm — combat?
In the red corner we have the most technologically advanced robot ever to explore beyond Earth. It’s bristling with sensors, armed with a fearsome drill and a laser, fueled by a plutonium power system, and ruggedly constructed to withstand the harsh Martian environment.
And in the blue corner we have me, a physically unremarkable representative of a species which likes to think of itself as the apex predator of the nearby planet of Earth.
In reality, I like to think that Perseverance and I would be the best of friends. The rover is a peaceful scientific investigator, searching Mars for signs of ancient life. And it’s controlled by humans on Earth, which means it’s subject to a communications delay of up to 20 minutes. But to make things interesting, let’s assume that it’s been reprogrammed to use every tool in its arsenal for maximum autonomous lethality.
I wanted to know if I stood a chance in such a scenario, so I called up Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who led the development of Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument and is broadly familiar with the rover’s capabilities.
Wiens suggested that my best bet might be to flip it over "like a beetle on its back." But given that Perseverance is approximately the size and weight of my first car — in a recent interview with Futurism, NASA head Steve Jurczyk characterized it as a "robot the size of a Mini Cooper" — I'd probably struggle, even with the planet’s weak gravity.
One advantage I would have is speed. My fitness levels are deeply unimpressive, exacerbated by a year spent alternately sitting at my desk and rewatching old episodes of "Star Trek" from my couch. But even my dumpy, unathletic body could maintain a leisurely pace of 3 mph — enough to easily overtake the rover's glacial top speed of just 0.1 mph.
Even if the rover could crush my squishy organic frame beneath its formidable wheels, it would have to catch me first. And as a lifelong specialist in avoiding confrontation, I can run away like a champ.
One strategy would be to use my cunning and construct a trap. I could build a ramp from Martian rocks and sand and lie in wait for the Mars rover to investigate, hoping the steep terrain would tip it over. But Wiens isn't sure about my chances.
"That might be a little difficult," he said. "I've seen a model drive right up over a rock that was nearly one meter tall."
Indeed, the rover can make amazing maneuvers over tricky terrain thanks to its suspension system — called, and I swear I am not making this up, a “rocker-bogie” mechanism — which keeps its weight evenly distributed over all six sturdy wheels. It can climb over rocks and through depressions, and the chunky tread of its wheels can handle both soft sand and hard rocks.
Another possibility would be to use my highly evolved monkey brain to perform a sneak attack. In the great tradition of early man, I could locate a hefty Mars rock and try to bludgeon the rover into submission.
Wiens thinks that might work, at least to some extent. Most of the hardware which makes up instruments like SuperCam is custom-built to withstand the extreme forces of launch and landing, not to mention the planet's frigid temperatures. But certain components, such as the infrared detectors, are commercially built devices and can contain fragile parts.
"We don't really expect any Martians to be attacking the rover," Wiens admitted.
So I might have a chance at harming it, because some parts are a “bit sensitive if someone is throwing rocks or small pebbles at it,” in Wiens’ analysis. There's a glass window in front of the SuperCam instrument, for instance, which he thinks I could smash to disorient the rover.
To do that, though, I'd need to get close, and that would be hard due to its keen-eyed sensors. The SuperCam instrument alone includes a camera with a zoom powerful enough to spot a human hair from two meters away, and infrared sensors for studying mineralogy via reflected sunlight, which means it could spot me in the dark. It also has a microphone, which will be the first instrument to record the sounds of Mars, so even my footfalls could betray me.
The rover might defend itself by attacking me with its Ingenuity marscopter, with its whirling rotors, which NASA intends to be the first aircraft to fly on a world other than Earth. And what really scares me about melee combat is Perseverance's laser, also part of SuperCam, which is designed to fire in brief pulses of five billionths of a second, focused on an area of just a fraction of a millimeter. The laser can fire at targets more than 20 feet away with great accuracy.
"It packs a lot of energy into a really small spot," Wiens explained, to turn little pieces of rock into a high-energy plasma so that the camera can detect the color spectrum they give off, revealing their elemental composition.
That's awesome for analyzing Martian rocks. But it's unclear what it would mean for me as the target of the rover's ire. What would happen, I asked, if I put my hand in front of the laser?
"It would make a little burn mark," Wiens said. "Don't do that."
I might get some protection from the laser with my spacesuit. But the rover would have yet another weapon in the form of its drill, which is designed to bore into rocks in order to collect samples. The Sample Caching System includes a carousel of no less than nine drill bits for different types of sample, which are attached to a seven-foot arm that reaches out to drill into rock — or, terrifyingly, into me.
All told, when even one of the scientists who was intimately involved in the design of the rover is skeptical about my chances, I’m not feeling confident. That’s a chilling thought, especially when I imagine I’m on Mars and it’s growing dark, and through the thin atmosphere an ominous whisper carries — a distant whirring of gears which tells me my ruthless robotic adversary is out there, just waiting for its chance to attack.
Dan Robitzski contributed reporting.
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