Star Wars technology, coming soon to a planet near you
NASA technology work parallels sci-fi giant
May 19, 1999: Science fiction is the infinite realm of what
might be, sometimes just a few minutes into the future. The new Star
Wars movie flashes dozens of futuristic concepts past the viewer's
eyes - but how likely are these concepts? Some might be closer than you
think. Check the possibilities below and click to the stories about the
research that NASA is conducting today to make tomorrow happen.
a cool city
Want to build a city on another world? First you'll need lots of
electricity. One way to do that is to use
the soil of Mars to build acres of rectennas, antennas that turn
microwaves - beamed from a satellite in aerostationary orbit - into
electrical power. And of course, you'll want to design it from the start
so it doesn't become an "urban
it do windows?
Want something like C3PO, a butler to answer the door and sweep the dust
off the table and another to do odd jobs around the house (don't forget
the restraint bolt!)? It will involve a number of technologies,
including the devices that make the arms and legs work. The Jet
Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is working on artificial
muscles that could be used as actuators in future space mini-probes,
or in droids.
checked by radar
Who's directing traffic? In the 21st century, the U.S. skies could look
a little bit like a scene in "Phantom Menace" where everyone
seems to by flying around town. NASA's
Advanced General Aviation Technology Experiment is developing the
tools that could make it possible.
Transmitting enough data through a communications line to produce 3D
images, or just satisfy Internet access for everyone, is one of the
challenges facing modern communications. Traditional silica-based
optical fibers can't quite haul the load, but exotic
heavy-metal glass fibers called ZBLAN, manufactured in the
microgravity of space, hold tremendous promise. For superfast computing
when the data arrive, nonlinear
optics may hold the answer.
Even a journey of a thousand light years starts with a single step into
low Earth orbit. One way to take that step in the next century is on "Highways
of Light ." In the near term, we might start with a sled ride
on the Maglifter, or by some other
advanced propulsion ideas.
explosions in space
Some newspaper wags have wondered if mysterious gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)
observed by satellites are caused by alien civilizations duking it out
in deep space. We've pretty much ruled that out, but we still aren't
sure exactly what does cause GRBs. For the latest, read the Autopsy
of an Explosion. - then come back in October for the Fifth
Huntsville Gamma-Ray Burst Symposium for even newer results.
It won't stop blasters or death rays, but aerogel may help keep the heat
out - or in - in the 21st century. NASA is using space experiments to
understand how to form aerogel
- "frozen smoke" - so we can eliminate the bluish tint
that limits its use as a super-insulating window. Aerogel has already
been used in space, helping the Soujourner Mars rover stay warm.
droids came marching two by two
Where do the carbon-based life forms in Star Wars get all those
droids? NASA scientists plan to 'breed'
better spacecraft using artificial intelligence. Such a strategy
mimics nature, and may be one of the most efficient methods of future
original Star Wars
They ended about a millennium before George Lucas was born. The last
four centuries of the Maya Civilization saw the rise of Star Wars, so
named by archeologists because they apparently were linked to the planet
Venus and the astrological beliefs of their priests. Now, NASA is using satellites
and other technology to study Mayan remains in search of clues to
how they might have destroyed their environment so we can prevent a
repeat of that destruction as the Central American population grows.
I get one in red?
Oh, yes. The light sabers. We don't do light sabers. So far, NASA crews
haven't packed anything more dangerous than a survival knife (or the
food, according to some astronauts). But the way the Jedi Masters swing
their sabers, perhaps they could sign up for baseball
It might all sound like science fiction - but so did papers written in
the 1920s by Robert Goddard, and Wernher von Braun in the early 1950s,
about going to the Moon. If you want to keep up to date with the latest
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