NASA's 2020 July 13 press release about the Mars 2020 mission calls its rover Perseverance a "robotic scientist." Is this press release, or at least this mission, the first usage of this term? Why doesn't NASA just call Perseverance a robot or a rover like its predecessors?

Sure, it has some autonomy, which justifies 'robot' over 'instrument' or 'apparatus.' But the hypotheses that it itself formulates and tests are more about terrain navigation and survival (safe modes) than about its mission goals. Surely it's a stretch to call it a robot astrobiologist.

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    $\begingroup$ The rover's union demanded it. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Because the more accurate anthropomorphism, "robotic field technician," just doesn't have nearly the pizzazz. ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for a thoughtfully posed question (one needs to actually read the question to see this) and for having both the curiosity and spirit to provide an opportunity to make jokes in comments, let us hope our site's community has the perseverance to answer it as well! ;-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 4:33
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh: With jokes like that, they need to name the next rover groan. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ Back in 1973, the Soviet media referred to the Lunokhod as the "RESEARCHER ROBOT" - "like another crew member". So this expression is quite old and its original origin is unlikely to be found. $\endgroup$
    – A. Rumlin
    Commented Aug 18, 2020 at 17:45

3 Answers 3


I do recall reading about this very issue in a book about the Spirit & Opportunity rovers.

Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers by William J. Clancey, paperback 2014 ISBN: 9780262526807

While not strictly "Robot Scientist" hopefully not too much of a stretch.

From: Chapter 6 - Being the Rover: We're on Mars

  • Origin and Value of the "Robotic Geologist" Shorthand To understand how the robotic geologist terminology came about, a good place to begin is how the concept of the rover changed in the series of proposals, as captured by the project's evolving name: Mars Geologist Pathfinder, Mars Geologist Rover, Mars Mobile Pathfinder, Mars Geological Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rover. These names show how the concept began as a "geologist" version of the 1997 Pathfinder lander (the stationary platform component for the tiny Sojourner rover), hence the "Geologist Pathfinder"(p124)

  • Why do the words get turned around to suit "robotic geologist", referring to the tool as a person? In some respects , the MER scientists can be poetic about the rover because robotic technology is not their area of scientific concern and therefore is not something they need to speak about in technical terms. In characterizing Mars, they are quite insistent about descriptive precision (p124)

  • Anthropomorphizing MER offically began with the selection of the names in the student essay competition....The twin Viking landers in 1976 did not have nicknames, and we were content with the grand touring names of Voyager and Pioneer (p125)

  • Another clue about why people readily adopt metaphors for rovers is that no one calls Hubble a "robotic astronomer" suggesting that anthropomorphism requires the spacecraft to be at the site begin studied (p126)

  • Explorers language (p100)

The book details the Viking missions, quoting Ezell & Ezell (1984) (p103)

  • even the science teams Science 2009 article begins : "The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity examined a small bedrock outcrop" (p103)

  • and so portraying spacecraft or rovers as heroic personas - as projections of people - is an artistic way of representing our over-arching aspirations to extend our being and experience beyond the Earth. (p254)

A 2013 review of the 2012 hardcover book (Isis 104(4), p. 864) mentions this issue:

Clancey tells the story of these scientists largely in their own words, recounting their enthusiasms, frustrations, and fears as they come to view the spacecraft they control as colleagues or even adjuncts of their own personhood. The Mars rovers aren’t dumb remote-control cars, but nor are they fully autonomous: they require complex monitoring and programming each Martian day, and the planning of even more elaborate “campaigns” precedes any sojourn to a particularly nice boulder or crater. The perilous nature of the environment in which these craft operate—freezing nights that deprive the solar-powered craft of electricity, the real danger of falling into a ditch with no one around to offer a nudge out of it—fills Spirit’s operators with the kind of worry one might feel for a pathologically clumsy but brilliant lab partner.

The book's table of contents is:

Scientists Working on Mars 1 Mission Origin and Accomplishments 13 A New Kind of Field science 27 A New Kind of Scientific Exploration System 53 The Mission Scientists 71 Being the Rover: We’re on Mars 99 The Communal Scientist 141 The Scientist Engineers 173 The Personal Scientist 197 The Future of Planetary Surface Exploration 221 Epilogue 251 Notes 259 Bibliographic Essay 285 Glossary 293 Index 299

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome, Paul! Could you mark which parts of this are quotes from the book? (Start a line with > .) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ Also, these quotes are from the book mentioned in your other answer. Better one solid answer than spreading the info over two... or move than answer here, it looks like there's two Paul McErlean accounts here. @uhoh What's the best way to merge these? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @CamilleGoudeseune flag for moderator assistance, they're here to help and have the magic wands, or go to main meta FAQ and see if there's anything that applies $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ Please see here for instructions on merging accounts: space.stackexchange.com/help/merging-accounts $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Commented Jan 9, 2021 at 4:09

Answer merged into one larger one.

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    $\begingroup$ I just happened to be at a library when I saw your answer and was able to download an electronic copy. If there's some phrase or term or something specific I might search for let me know! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 5, 2021 at 11:14
  • $\begingroup$ I've changed the accepted answer to Paul's other answer, which looks like it uses the SE account linked to his other SE sites, instead of this standalone account. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ I have requested merging my accounts, thanks for the tips uhoh and Camille. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 12:52

Every joke has its share of a joke. Perhaps the meaning of this joke is that Perseverance performs almost all the same functions as scientists in the first stage of research (information gathering). Or perhaps we still do not know something and we are being prepared for new developments that can really largely replace scientists at certain stages of research. (Hardly). There are no bad methods in popularizing important topics)


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