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Spaceships that think

Kürsad Özdemir / Spaceships That Think

The robots outnumber the humans in this futurist's conception of a lunar base and
autonomous solar farm. Such a concept blends a "biosphere" and a "robosphere."

Engineer/entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty has helped NASA and the European Space Agency think about what they want in space habitats. Heck, she's even lived in a habitat designed for Mars. Now she's getting ready to return to her native India, to get people thinking about new ways to live on other planets - and live better on our home planet as well.

The strategy she has in mind is poles apart from the usual vision for space exploration: Instead of mapping out a multibillion-dollar, government-funded, nationcentric assault on the moon, she envisions enlisting the wider world through the Internet to develop technologies that could be tested in virtual space and on Earth.

She sees this as a very Asian way of doing things: "I strongly believe that India and China should not imitate the Western approach to exploration, rather invent their own by taking the best of the East and the West and by riding the new wave powered by knowledge, entrepreneurship and the Internet," she writes in a blueprint titled "Spaceships That Think."

It's an approach she calls "open exploration," analogous to open-source software.

"The idea would be to create the right kinds of tools and the right kind of environment for young people to form teams and create enabling technologies for the first-generation moonbase," she said.

She envisions "micro-competitions" modeled after the X Prize for private spaceflight, or the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles. "The competitions would be designed in such a way that the outcome could be used and adapted for similar applications here on Earth," she told me this week.

Among the examples:

  • Create a multipurpose robotic fleet that could be used to survey a planned construction site and build a base on the moon ... or remove explosive devices and survey hazardous sites on Earth.
  • Build an autonomous solar-array farm that could power a lunar habitat and tend itself without human intervention ... or provide clean energy for suburban and rural areas on Earth.
  • Write software for autonomous operations, to start up and maintain operations at a lunar habitat even when no human crew is present ... or to tend unmanned monitoring stations keeping watch on seismic (or political) fault lines.
  • Design advanced water and waste recycling systems to sustain a lunar base ... or to provide affordable treatment systems for the developing world.

"It would be great to see next-generation recycling systems that would no longer need those long sewage networks," Mohanty said. "If we come up with localized solutions for the moon, we could actually test it right here on Earth."

And even before the technologies are tested in the real world, they could be put through their paces in virtual environments such as Second Life, she said. Just as cyber-avatars are programmed to interact as if they were real people, cyber-robots could be programmed to interact as if they were real robots taking on an exploration task.

The winners of a virtual technology competition in the virtual world could be rewarded "through a competive-gaming structure" - perhaps denominated in Linden Dollars, the coin of the realm in Second Life.

Back in the real world, there are parallels between what Mohanty has in mind and what NASA is already doing through its Centennial Challenges program. The $250,000 Mars Robotic Construction Challenge, for example, is aimed at creating the kinds of robotic fleets that could go to work on the moon as well as on Earth.

Mohanty said the teams envisioned in her "Spaceships That Think" blueprint could be spread across the world, knit together by Skype or other video/chat networks. However, she's thinking India will be the best place to start. And that's not just because India is where she grew up, or because her father was a pioneer of the Indian space program.

"India is at the crossroads," she told me. "They build their own satellites, they launch their own satellites. Now what?"

In early 2008, India plans to launch its first robotic probe to the moon, the Chandrayaan 1 orbiter. Chandrayaan 2 is to follow in the 2011-2012 time frame. "Before sending man (to the moon), we need to develop a lot of technologies," Jitendranath Goswami, project scientist for the Chandrayaan mission, told the Press Trust of India this week.

When Mohanty sets up her base of operations in Bangalore, she intends to take a role in developing those technologies - and forging public-private partnerships to support those efforts.

"A lot of companies are targeting the young people in India. ... If we can get a lot of young people to participate in these micro-competitions, I think a lot of technical companies and even consumer companies would be willing to fund these competitions," she said.

But she also wants to draw in the older generation, by creating an "international bank of intellectual capital." Retired or about-to-retire engineers from the Apollo era could contribute their expertise via the Internet to the next global generation, she said.

"These people have this tremendous knowledge which we could lose completely," she said. "Instead, I would like to do things inspired by the way things are done in Asia, where the older generation is considered an important link for the younger generation."

There's quite a bit of idealism to what Mohanty is hoping to do - but maybe that's what an increasingly international space effort needs. And she's well familiar with the international scene as co-founder and managing director of the Moonfront consulting firm in San Francisco, as well as co-founder and principal of the Liquifer architecture/design firm in Vienna.

So what do you think? Will her blueprint for international, virtual, cross-generational, micro-X Prizes fly? Feel free to add your comments below.