If Pete Worden, the director of NASA's Ames Research Center has his way, a future robotic mission to the moon will take place where we can all walk or fly along with the lunar rover as it makes its way over the lunar landscape, he said in a preview of mass space exploration during the International Space Development Conference in Dallas, delivered direct from the virtual world known as Second Life.
"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."
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. "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."
Worden is totally sold on the promise of virtual worlds in environments such as the open-source Croquet platform. NASA's recently announced open-source software initiative, CosmosCode, which could contribute to that collaborative spirit.
Worden's is bullish for microsatellites and nanosatellites - tiny probes such as GeneSat or CubeSat that can do almost as much as bigger spacecraft.
"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 told the audience. "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."