Monday, March 18, 2013

A look into the future at MSI






It was not planned but very much welcomed and appreciated.

I was fortunate enough to get an invite to go with Rebecca and her son Jimmy Bob Jones to attend a lecture entitled "From Science Fiction To Science Fact" at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  The lecture was slated to take place on a Saturday and I thought, "Great.  It'll be easy to get downtown on the weekend."

Oh nothing could have been further from the truth.  What was last Saturday?  March 16th.  In Chicago, that means dying the river green.  That means every frat and sorority house from Wisconsin to Kentucky cleared out and came to Chicago for the party.  Yep.  People drunk and stumbling in the streets and it was only 11am.  As I waded through them and they hollered "It's St. Patty's Day!" I was half tempted to answer "And I'm going to a lecture by NASA!  F--k yeah!"  I don't believe it would have been well received.

But I sure liked it.  The presenters were Dr. Gregory Scott and Michael Paul of the US Navy Space Research Laboratory and Penn State respectively.  Both scientists have received funding from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program.  Scott took the stage first and told us about battery powered robots and by robots I mean something similar to the Curiosity rover on Mars.  What would be different about the batteries on these devices would be that they would be powered by microbes and bacteria.

"They [microorganisms] eat sugar and poop electricity," Scott said, speaking of how this form of battery may not be simply the new wave of power source for NASA probes, but eventually for more common technologies as well.

Michael Paul talked about his experience as a space systems engineer, particularly his efforts on the recent mission to Mercury.  He took a less technical, more storytelling approach to his talk than his compatriot did, connecting pertinent findings by NASA to aspects of the Star Wars saga.  That might sound overly facile to a few of you, but I sort of liked the balance that the two men were able to give, thereby living up to the title of the presentation. 

Unfortunately, the introduction to the program mentioned something that I would have liked to have heard a great deal more about, namely further remote exploration of Mars.  One of the ideas was that of a "bugbot-thopter." Yes, I did think of Dune when I heard the phrase.  I found one link to this program funded by DARPA, but the page is admittedly a bit sketchy.  The concept would be to have one rover be a central, mobile base that launches numerous thopter drones that could disperse and investigate a wider range of the planet.

Another project mentioned by picture but in passing was a robotic glider that would roam Mars and study it from above but from an obviously lower altitude than an orbiter.  The thinner atmosphere of the planet would be most conducive to this and would probably allow such a drone to stay aloft for great periods of time.  It made me think of a proposal made a few years back about exploring Mars via balloon.  This in turn made me think of Arthur C. Clarke and his banyan trees, a notion I have only heard about in passing.  Nevertheless, it's fun to think about exploratory balloons or gliders or 'thopters getting caught in the snarled ends of these trees like Charlie Brown's kite.

So of course there is always more you'd like to hear about during one of these things.  The sad fact is, the time allotment is finite and there is only so much you can cover.  That said, the two speakers did a fine job of opening minds and showing us what is possible.  During the Q and A session, I worked up the nerve to step to the mic and ask the speakers about science fiction.  Specifically, what they as scientists would like to see from writers like me.  You know, the guys who only write about what these gentlemen actually do all day long?

They both answered that they were particularly interested in DARPA's "100 Year Starship" initiative.  You can find out more about the concept at the link, but the idea is that of launching a generational spaceship to reach one of our nearer stars.  Who would go?  How would they be selected?  What challenges would this essentially brand new society face?  I was intrigued by these ideas at first until Rebecca pointed out that Clarke may have scooped everyone with this in his Rama Revealed.  I'll have to see.

Once the presentation was over, we roamed the museum for a bit.  Alas, we were unable to reach the wing with the spaceflight exhibits before closure, so that must be for another time.  I did, however, snap this photo of what is ostensibly an avalanche simulator but looks far more like the surface of Mars to me:



A good time was had by all.  I'd like to thank Rebecca and her boy Jimmy Bob Jones for the invite and most especially the ride back home (otherwise I would have been forced to endure the wind and cold of Chicago...not entirely un-Mars-like in temperature.)

Just a reminder, Jimmy Bob...get your mother's permission before you turn the swimming pool into a massive bacteria-powered battery.  And if you're caught with several pounds of sugar...she'll know why.



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