Why send a person to do a robot’s job?


A few more thoughts on the Rosetta project:  no human being has ever been that far from the Earth, The farthest people have ever been was to the moon, about 234,000 miles away from the center of the Earth, or less than 1/1,000 of the distance which the Rosetta Mission is right now. At the moment, we only send people as far as International Space Station, which is about as far above the surface of the Earth as Washington is from New York.

Sending robot probes out has many advantages over sending people: you don’t have to include life support, you don’t have to get them back, you can build them for a tiny fraction of the cost of a manned mission.  It’s cheaper and safer, and you can send them on ten-year missions without having to worry about boredom or psychological problems.

So:  why didn’t the scientists in the movie Interstellar send out robot probes to explore beyond the wormhole?  Another advantage was made amply clear as the plot advanced: any given robot in that movie was much smarter than all of people in it.

An unrelated thought inspired by my colleague Kevin Emerson:  in the latest episode of the Flash, he grabs Iris and brings her up to the roof.  I won’t do the math again, but the acceleration should clearly kill her: he’d have to accelerate to his high speeds and decelerate from them over a distance comparable to several football fields for her to be safe when he grabs her.  (It strikes me that I’m blogging about the Flash just as much as she does in-show…  I’ll try to find a new topic next time, but the show just keeps on giving.)

Physics Today, the Flash and project Rosetta


A random conflation of three separate items for this post:

Physics Today’s Facebook page just added a link to a Q&A session they did with me about my book.  The reviewed it in the last issue of the journal, and it got a very nice review from Edward Belbruno, a physicist I respect quite a lot.

The Flash can run on water!  At least, so says the episode last night.  According to his lab rat friends, he needs to run at 650 mph to do this – is this accurate?  I think the answer’s lower: more like 60-100 mph.  Still an impossibility, but not so impossible an impossible.  The issue is momentum transfer: every step he takes across the water transfers some fraction of his momentum to the water.  The rate of momentum transfer is the force he applies; Newton’s third law says that an equal force is pushing up on him.  A quick estimate says that the speed is about the square root of (g (the acceleration of gravity) times the stride length (maybe 2 meters?) times a fudge factor (which should be somewhere between 10 and 100, in lieu of difficult detailed models)).  Putting all this together, the needed speed is about 50 meters per second, or about 100 mph, maybe even lower.  Running up the side of a building is a different matter: if he tries to run up fast, he’ll just bounce off because of his high speed of approach.  Better he should run up a long ramp and launch himself into the air, except that landing after doing that is a problem…

Of course, the big news today is Philae, the lander for project Rosetta, landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  It may have bounced once after harpoons failed to anchor it to the surface, which worried the scientists, for good cause. The escape velocity of a body like it depends on two things: its density and its mean radius.  Because it’s small and light (most comets are loosely-held conglomerations of dust and ice), the escape speed is going to be very low.  It’s about 4 km across, roughly 1,000 times smaller than Earth; if its density is 1/10 that of Earth, the escape speed will be about 3,000 times less than Earth’s (escape speed goes as size times square root of density.)  This might lower the escape speed to meters per second, making it very possible for it to drift away on a bad bounce.

xkcd, as usual, has an excellent comic covering the landing.

The first images look amazing.