NASA eyes swarming spacecrafts that self-destruct to save others

September 7th, 2010 - 2:21 pm ICT by ANI  

London, Sep 7 (ANI): NASA is creating a new self-sacrifice mechanism, in which future space probes will see many small spacecrafts working in co-operatio, but will commit hara-kiri if they begin to fail and risk damaging their comrades.

The agency foresees a day when space missions are undertaken not by one large spacecraft but by swarming formations of much smaller, cheaper ones.

Such craft could collectively provide a “floating optics” system for a space telescope comprising separate craft flying in formation, for instance.

However, in case one spacecraft in such a swarm begin to fail and risk a calamitous collision with another, it must sense its end is near and put itself on a course that takes it forever away from the swarm - for the greater good of the collective.

Failing that - perhaps because it has too little fuel to move - it must “passivate” itself by deactivating all its systems.

This would mean discharging its batteries so as to pose no risk of shock in a collision, and venting any last vestiges of fuel that could explode in a crash.

Then its neighbours would be programmed to navigate around the lifeless satellite.

To make this altruistic behaviour possible, NASA engineers Michael Vinchey and Emil Vassev at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, want to patent the idea of control software that autonomously guides all the craft in a mission while constantly checking up on critical electronic systems in each one.

When certain failure modes are sensed, the craft must “self-sacrifice voluntarily by transformation or self-destruction”, says the application.

The inventors have compared this to the way bee colonies operate, with the workers cooperating to ensure that the mission - that is, reproduction by the queen - succeeds at all costs, even at their own peril.

Richard Holdaway, director of space technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot, UK, says NASA’s idea is gaining traction in Europe, too.

“It’s a clever move by NASA and it’s one we’re looking at for future missions,” New Scientist quoted him as saying.

“Having 10 to 100 spacecraft with optical, infrared and radar sensors swarming together offers great scope for science missions - but it’s one hell of a technical and software challenge. A self-sacrifice mechanism that adjusts the constellation as a whole when units fail is a wise move,” he added. (ANI)

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