Thursday, June 01, 2006

Droids In Space

Since most of the people reading this blog are my friends, I know there are a few Star Wars fans out there. This one's for you. NASA has some new toys.

June 1, 2006: Six years ago, MIT engineering Professor David Miller showed the movie Star Wars to his students on their first day of class. There's a scene Miller is particularly fond of, the one where Luke Skywalker spars with a floating battle droid. Miller stood up and pointed: "I want you to build me some of those."

So they did. With support from the Department of Defense and NASA, Miller's undergraduates built five working droids. And now, one of them is onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

"It only looks like a battle droid," laughs Miller. It's actually a tiny satellite—the first of three NASA plans to send to the ISS. Together, they'll navigate the corridors of the space station, learning how to fly in formation.

The idea is to work with the little robots, and refine ways to coordinate their movements. There's only one of them up in the space station now, but the plan is to add two more, and then get them to start working in tandem. Tiny satellites are the wave of the future. They can easily hitch a ride with other payloads, which makes them cheap to transport, and a string of them could replace a larger satellite in orbit. So, instead of one big satellite circling the Earth (or whatever other planet we might be wanting them to circle) and sending back readings from one location at a time, you would have a network of them, covering more territory with more flexibility. If one gets damaged, the others will shift to compensate, coordinating among themselves.

The getting them to coordinate part is where the space station experiments will come in. It's easier said than done. There's an awful lot of complicated calculations and mechanics to get worked out before the little droids will be able get it all together. The hope is that, when they do, the things that scientists have learned in the process will also help with other complicated space activities, like joining large sections of a space ship.
Possible applications include NASA's return to the Moon (see the Vision for Space Exploration). One way to build a moonship is to assemble it piece by piece in Earth orbit. "Software designed to control small satellites could just as well be used to maneuver the pieces of a spaceship together," says Miller.
So, the applications of science fiction to the real world continue to expand. The science keeps progressing, and the fiction keeps just a jump or two ahead. It's awfully cool to see the movie images that so captivated us in our youth inspiring actual scientific advancement, and coming to life out in space. May the trend continue--with one caveat. I hope they never build a Death Star.


  1. Keeping in mind that the Death Star they used to make the movie was pretty small, technically they have already created a Death Star. Or maybe, given its size, a Bad Bruise Star.

  2. Technically, true, and I'm sure the mini Death Star might be a threat to the mini universe from Men In Black. I'm not really worried about anyone turning the mock-up on and blasting Earth away. It could be useful though. Maybe they can attach lasers to it and we can use it to exterminate ants or something. Thanks for the comment!!

  3. COOL! Now who's gonna perfect the light saber to go along with it?

    "Use the force, Luke."

    Does this mean that we all have to start learning to use the force? Don't tell my kids - they'll wanna have one of those things for Christmas!