[meteorite-list] Space ANTS: Futuristic Probes to Cruise Asteroid Belt

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:37:38 2004
Message-ID: <200012281831.KAA24363_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Space ANTS: Futuristic Probes to Cruise Asteroid Belt
By Andrew Bridges
28 December 2000

SAN FRANCISCO - NASA may mimic the ant in its future efforts to explore the
belt of asteroids that lies between Mars and Jupiter, a resource-rich region
that astronauts might tap as humans move out in the solar system.

A small group working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has proposed
launching a massive colony of miniature spacecraft - using social
insect-inspired artificial intelligence - to spend several years prospecting
among perhaps 1,000 of the space rocks.

"The idea is to have a totally autonomous swarm you can send out to explore
multiple bodies," said Steven Curtis, a scientist at the Greenbelt,
Maryland, NASA field center.

Called ANTS - that's "Autonomous Nano Technology Swarm" - the fleet of buggy
spacecraft would cruise independently to the asteroid belt. Each futuristic
probe would hoist its own solar sail to capture the minute pressure of the
sun's rays and push it along on its journey.

The tiny probes, each weighing about 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram), would then fan
out among the hundreds of thousands of asteroids at least 0.62 mile (1
kilometer) in diameter or larger.

"You build a bunch of them and just throw them out there," said Curtis, who
recently presented the concept at the fall meeting of the American
Geophysical Union.

Scientists look to the asteroid belt for multiple reasons, including as
potential threats to Earth and sources of raw materials. For example, the
asteroids contain metals - otherwise prohibitively expense to launch into
space from Earth - that could be employed in the further exploration of the

Even a cursory - but up-close - survey of the asteroid belt, and the
elemental composition and types of the bodies found there, would allow
astrogeologists to pinpoint which individual rocks would merit mining.

"You could rapidly determine which are the most important mineral resources
in terms of future exploitation," said Donald Yeomans, an asteroid and comet
expert at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The ANTS mission would not launch before 2020 at the earliest, and only then
from human-occupied space stations parked in Lagrangian orbits, or L-points,
where the gravitational forces of the Earth and sun are perfectly balanced,
Curtis said.

The swarm would take three or more years to travel to the main belt of
asteroids. Once there, 100 ruler and messenger "ants" would look on, guiding
operations, as the 900 or so worker probes did the bulk of the work. Only a
small number of messengers would then make the return trip to their
space-based safe harbor, ferrying with them the data acquired during the

Each worker would carry a single instrument, whether a magnetometer,
gamma-ray sensor or some other tool, to perform a specific task.

"Basically, everything you'd need to characterize the asteroids from remote
sensing," Curtis said of the complement of instruments. Instead of a single,
large spacecraft though, those functions would be "smeared" across the 1,000
tiny probes.

That large number builds redundancy into the system: lose 20 percent of the
spacecraft and the mission can still succeed. It also lowers the cost of a
mission, since NASA could churn the probes out on an assembly line.

Most importantly, the scheme would permit individual probes of modest means
to collectively perform Herculean efforts - just as occurs in the realm of
the ant and other social insects.

"Insects do a lot with what they have," Curtis said.

Indeed, scientists are increasingly looking at ants and other creatures in
designing robotic networks that mimic the collective, emergent intelligence
in the behavior found in places like the colony of insect critters in your

"The ant colony as a whole, some people refer to it as a super-organism,
because any one individual isn't that intelligent. But if you view the ant
colony as an organism itself, it does intelligent things," said Tucker
Balch, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who models ant
behavior for adoption in future robotic systems. "The lesson is, you can
build a complex, almost intelligent, system with many inexpensive and
possibly disposable parts."

In the case of the ANTS proposal, the probes would perform their tasks
individually, but at the same time would swap what they've learned back and
forth in a way that makes the collective behave - Borglike - as would a
single, larger spacecraft.

Elsewhere within NASA, scientists are developing similar concepts for
application in planetary exploration. At JPL, for instance, the Sensor Webs
Project seeks to develop an independent network of wireless sensor pods that
could be deployed to monitor and explore a limitless range of environments.

Like space ants, a sensor web's individual components would communicate
among themselves, allowing for the diffused yet orchestrated exploration of
dynamic regions like the northern polar cap of Mars.

"The thing with sensor webs is you really want the emergent behavior to
resemble conscious thought for the whole being rather than the individual,"
said Kevin Delin, leader of the JPL project. "The important thing is there
is a global purpose to their behavior, rather than just saying, 'We're all
Received on Thu 28 Dec 2000 01:31:14 PM PST

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