One of the fascinations of nanotechnology is its ability to shrink payloads. That means a lot when every kilogram you add to a probe makes it that much more costly to propel; at interstellar distances, nanotechnology means we might one day send tiny probes at a fraction of the vast cost of comparative giants like today’s Cassini Saturn orbiter.
One project that might deploy such methods in the near future is ANTS — Autonomous Nano Technology Swarm. The acronym is apt, because ANTS is all about collective, emergent intelligence of the sort that appears in insect colonies. What scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center envision is a massive cluster of tiny probes that use artificial intelligence to explore the asteroid belt. Each probe, weighing perhaps 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) would have its role — while a small number of them direct the exploration, perhaps 900 of the probes would proceed to do the work, with only a few returning to Earth with data.
One key factor here is redundancy; the mission succeeds even if a large number of individual probes are lost. ANTS could serve as a testbed for numerous technologies as it spreads computing intelligence across intelligent, networked spacecraft. In particular, computer autonomy would be critical to ensuring the success of the mission.
And if ANTS wouldn’t launch any time before 2020, it’s still under active discussion today, as witness the appearance of the University of Ulster’s Roy Sterritt, who addressed NASA scientists about his work on autonomy today at Goddard. From a University of Ulster press release:
Autonomic computing operates like the human body’s autonomic nervous system which self-manages biological systems. It regulates vital functions such as telling the heart how fast to beat and monitors and adjusts blood flow without conscious effort. Mr Sterritt’s research is aimed at developing computer systems that would work in the same way without requiring constant human intervention.
Mike Hinchey, director of NASA’s Software Engineering Laboratory, said: “Autonomic computing research has been identified by NASA as having potential to contribute to their goals of autonomy and cost reduction in future space exploration missions… The [ANTS] mission is viewed as the prototype for how many future unmanned missions will be developed and how future space exploration will exploit autonomous and autonomic behaviour.”
NASA information about the ANTS mission can be found here.