Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

NASA changes science fiction into science fact

Concepts on the drawing board for space travel include bouncing 'microbots' and a telescope positioned outside the solar system

By Alok Jha  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Bouncing robots capable of exploring planets, a giant pinhole camera in space, and genetically engineered crops that could grow on other worlds are just three of the ideas proposed by scientists funded by NASA's forward-thinking Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).

Now, NIAC, the organization that first backed research into space elevators (think of a satellite tethered to Earth by a giant cable, dispensing with a rocket launch to attain orbit) has again made its annual call for revolutionary ideas lurking in the laboratories, or even just in the imaginations, of US space scientists.

"NIAC was created to identify new and revolutionary concepts for NASA that go well beyond what NASA is currently doing," said Robert Cassanova, the director of NIAC, which was set up in 1998 as an independent, brainstorming institute.

"NIAC is looking for grand ideas and grand visions -- big ideas that might inspire new enabling technologies. We state explicitly that the concept or architectural system does not have to have the enabling technology available to make it work. And the science does not have to be totally understood," Cassanova said.

The dozen or so projects chosen each year for funding tend to be long-term, perhaps coming to fruition within 10 to 40 years, according to Sharon Garrison, NIAC's co-ordinator at NASA.

The deadline for out-of-this-world proposals this year is midnight, Feb. 13.

At a recent meeting in Colorado, scientists heard about the projects funded after last year's NIAC call. One microbiologist, Amy Grunden from North Carolina State University, reported that she had been working on a way to grow food in harsh conditions on other planets. Her inspiration came from extremophiles, microscopic organisms that live in the most extreme environments on Earth.

"We can actually pinpoint particular genes that are responsible for providing adaptations for these organisms that are living in extreme environments," Grunden said. "Given our current biochemical and physiological knowledge of some of these adaptive pathways, can we put them in other plant systems to help them deal with extremes?"

Her idea is to put "extreme survival" genes into crops such as rye. Astronauts on long missions would take the seeds with them, saving on the cost of taking food supplies into space.

Penelope Boston, of New Mexico Tech, and Steven Dubowsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's space robotics laboratory, looked at space exploration. Their idea was to beef up the capabilities of probes orbiting planets, and of robotic rovers -- such as Spirit and Opportunity, which have been trundling across Mars for two years -- with thousands of 10cm-wide ball shaped robots scattered on the planet's surface.

"The microbots employ hopping, bouncing and rolling as a locomotion mode to reach scientifically interesting features in very rugged terrain," the scientists said.

Powered by fuel cells, the microbots would explore, sharing information so as to build up a map of the planetary surface. Each robot could be customized and equipped, Dubowsky said, with "a suite of miniaturized instruments for each specific mission ... [with] imagers, spectrometers or chemical detection sensors."

The iconic but clunky spacesuit is also set for a makeover. Dava Newman, at MIT, presented the Bio-Suit System.

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