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Virtual moon trip coming up

Imagine hitching a ride to the moon on a pint-sized space probe - and experiencing every high point of the flight in real time, thanks to virtual-reality technology. If Pete Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center, has his way, this dream could well become a reality - well, at least a beta version of reality - in a little more than a year.

Worden provided a preview of mass-audience space exploration last week during the International Space Development Conference in Dallas, delivered direct from the virtual world known as Second Life. The event marked the debut of Worden's very own Second Life avatar, called SimonPete Raymaker. The computer representation looked sort of like Worden, only younger and thinner.

Linden Lab
SimonPete Raymaker is
the online avatar of
NASA's Pete Worden.

Worden's talk, addressed to crowds assembled at the National Space Society's real-life conference as well as at NASA's Second Life digs on Space CoLab Island, focused on how virtual environments can enhance public participation in space exploration:

"We are looking at how this island can be a portal for all to fly on space missions," Worden/Raymaker said. "Real data from real missions such as the international space station can be ported to the virtual environment and allow all to accompany these space missions.

"For example, I can imagine a future robotic mission to the moon where we can all walk or fly along with the lunar rover as it makes its way over the lunar landscape," he said. "If the rover streams its data back to Earth, we can build up an increasingly accurate virtual model of the land it's traveling. Your avatar can explore along with those of scientists and engineers managing the mission."

What's more, the avatars could conceivably interact: An earthbound geologist could call out through the virtual world, drawing the attention of a robot-human team to a particularly intriguing rock off by the side of a real-life lunar path, Worden/Raymaker said.

"In this manner, we can all participate in space exploration," he said. "When the next people step on the surface of the moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them. Of course, we haven't yet figured out how to address the light travel time delay, so you'd be with them a few seconds in the past."

The real-life Pete Worden
is director of NASA's Ames
Research Center.

The idea may seem as way out as the holodecks frequented by the Starship Enterprise's crew on "Star Trek." But Worden thinks this will become a reality way before the 23rd century. In fact, he's targeting the first experiment in virtual exploration for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, an Ames-managed mission that is scheduled for launch in October 2008.

LCROSS is designed to send a probe crashing into the moon, then analyze the composition of the debris thrown up by the impact. The results could tell NASA planners just how deep they'd have to dig to find water ice and other materials that will be useful for lunar exploration. (Here's an online video from KQED that traces the mission plan for LCROSS and its big-brother probe, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.)

"It's my intent to try to get everybody to go along with us on the LCROSS mission," Worden/Raymaker said. "How high-fidelity we can do on that will certainly be part of the effort."

The online presentation, projected on the big screens at the conference site, demonstrated that Second Life still has its limitations as a high-fidelity simulation tool. The avatars can be a bit cartoonish (Worden's was crafted by space activist Robin Snelson, a.k.a. Rocket Sellers). And the computer response time can be a bit laggy (due to too many users and not enough data bandwidth). In fact, there were times when Raymaker froze up altogether.

"Sometimes things go a little slow in Second Life," he observed philosophically.

Nevertheless, the real-life Worden is totally sold on the promise of virtual worlds - not only in Second Life, but in other environments such as the open-source Croquet platform. NASA's recently announced open-source software initiative, CosmosCode, should contribute to that collaborative spirit.

As an initial step, Worden said NASA could use its own wealth of imagery to create a high-fidelity virtual rendering of the international space station. After LCROSS, the next step would be to use virtual-world tools to design future spacecraft.

"Second Life is a way you can actually build stuff," he noted. "You can build prototypes, and actually test them as the fidelity of the simulations gets better."

Virtual worlds also offer a way to bring people together into online workspaces, even though they may be dialing in from the other side of the continent - or from the other side of the world, when you're talking about NASA's international partners.

"The exciting thing about Second Life, I think is that it offers an opportunity to easily work in these spaces," Worden said. "It is a global collaborative workspace. I see this as one of the key parts of the international commitment that the United States goverment has made for the Vision for Space Exploration."

All this meshes with Worden's enthusiasm for microsatellites and nanosatellites - tiny probes such as GeneSat or CubeSat that can do almost as much as bigger spacecraft but cost a heck of a lot less.

"The revolution in our ability to do big things with small satellites, using off-the-shelf technology, means we can mount frequent, small robotic spaceflights to the moon," he said. "We could easily carry scientific and exploration instruments. But due to their low cost, potentially only a few million dollars, small lunar and other deep-space missions of the nanosat class - weighing only a few kilograms - might be supported by wholly private means."

So maybe that truly high-fidelity, virtual mission to the moon will be brought to you by MSNBC rather than NASA. We can always dream, can't we?