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Stranger than fiction

Within 40 years, self-transforming robots could be scaling space, writes Sanjida O'Connell
Special report: space exploration

Sanjida O'Connell

Thursday July 27, 2000

His real drive is to try to prove that life exists on a world other than ours. "It will profoundly change the way we think; we'll look at the stars in the sky in a whole new way," says Thomas Vaneck, one of Nasa's new vanguard: scientists who have been recruited to conjure up creations from the very edge of the possible.

NIAC, the Nasa Institute for Advanced Concepts, has just held its second annual conference, of 27 US scientists who have been awarded a grant by Nasa. They met to tell each other about their projects. "Fortunately for us, we don't have to make any of these things in the next few weeks, and I think this was Nasa's plan - to allow us to be dreamers," says Steve Dubowsky.

The plans range from an elevator to whisk us into space, "astrotels" - space rockets cum hotels doing a shuttle run between Earth, moon and Mars, a spacecraft driven by a magnetic field, to a more familiar dream - the creation of a giant flawless telescope. All the ideas are intended to be realised within 40 years.

Dr Christopher Brown, from Dynamac Corporation and North Carolina State University, has a plan that on the surface seems more feasible than most. It partly relies on deciphering plant genetics, and as the whole genetic map of one species of plant is almost complete, he may have a head start. Brown's idea is a programmable plant, a sci-fi hybrid we can talk to then eat. "Eventually we'll understand enough genetics to manipulate plants in a directed manner to make plants do what we want when we want them to do it," says Brown. The plants will be a marriage of genetic engineering and nanotechnology; they'll contain devices so tiny they could fit inside the plant's cells, perhaps even within an organ inside a cell. This device could send information about the plant to us, or receive information.

"We could send that signal over long distances, from a rocket or from Earth to Mars to say, 'The crew will be there in two months, please flower', or 'Please increase output of oxygen'; well, it's a plant so you don't have to say please, but you get the picture."

Brown thinks that potentially you could have plants that could do even more than flower, increase oxygen output, mop up excess carbon dioxide, and recycle water on command. Plants could also be grown to produce chemicals such as insulin, or tomatoes and potatoes at the same time.

"The fun thing about NIAC is that you can loosen up your mind and project it into the future, but this project is definitely feasible," he adds.

Although arriving on Mars with home-grown veg already waiting is an attractive option, many planets are too hostile for humans to explore. Dr Steve Dubowsky, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, is developing robots that will investigate whatever is thrown at them. "One wouldn't know before one got there what would be needed to carry out the task," says Dubowsky, "so the robots would morph when they arrived."

His self-transforming robotic planetary explorers will be made out of plastic that will act like muscles with the equivalent of nerves and a distributed intelligence; in other words, each part of the robot will be a mini computer capable of communicating with every other part in the same way as the internet allows computers to network together. The robots would initially morph in three ways: firstly they could change shape by contracting muscles in the same way as a snake can become longer and thinner.

Secondly, they could radically change by physically shifting body parts around. For example, after walking along on two legs using a pair of limbs as arms, they could attach their arms in a different position, fasten on another set and scale a cliff like a spider.

Finally, groups of robots would join to construct a solar panel or dig minerals for rocket fuel. This large robot could break down into smaller units and reassemble in different configurations as required.

"In 40 years' time they'll have a high degree of autonomy. One could imagine a simple task, such as mapping or searching for water or minerals, would require them only to check in every three years."

Ultimately we will just drop CTXs - continuously transforming explorers on a planet. "We'd just ship a bag of plastic over and it would form itself into a new device," says Dubowsky.

Dr Thomas Vaneck, from Physical Sciences, in Andover, Massachusetts, is also developing robot colonisers but instead of shape-shifters, he has borrowed ideas from nature. "Nature has had a long time and an infinite budget to create critters," he explains.

What drives him is whether there are any Europans. Europa, Jupiter's second moon, has water and heat, and its oceans could have hot, chemical vents similar to those found at the bottom of earth's seas. These geothermal vents are home to up to 300 species, so we may find equivalent life forms on Europa. The idea is that robot eels will swim down to the bottom of Europa's oceans, split open and give birth to seahorses which are more efficient swimmers and can hold onto rocks with their tails if the current grows too strong.

"These creatures are going to be made from materials that don't exist today," says Vaneck. "They have to be lightweight because it costs a lot to get them to another planet, and they have to withstand tremendous pressure and in a potentially nasty environment - we don't know whether they'll be bathing in acid."

He imagines a bone structure clothed in a skin grown from carbon nanotubes. So will the eels and seahorses spot life on Europa? "Frankly I would love it if something comes up and taps on the seahorse's camera and says, 'Hi, how are you?' But I suspect that the life we'll find will be microscopic, bacteria-like."

Who knows whether macroscopic Europans may be less inclined to say hi, and rather more partial to taking a bite out of home-grown carbon nanotubes shaped like seahorses. In any case, what we do know is that within 40 years, many of these projects will have bitten the dust, Martian or otherwise. But as NIAC director Dr Robert Cassanova says: "What our active science programme will certainly do is enable us to have a much more efficient air transport system on earth, as well as providing better access to space. It will also increase our knowledge about our own origins and highlight where the human race will evolve to."

     

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