Space scientists explore fiction for novel ideas

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The Independent Online

Scientists from the European Space Agency are turning the pages of science fiction novels in the hope of finding new ideas on how to cross the cosmos and explore distant planets.

Scientists from the European Space Agency are turning the pages of science fiction novels in the hope of finding new ideas on how to cross the cosmos and explore distant planets.

The agency is asking science fiction authors and readers to submit any suggestions they have come across during their fictional journeys into space that may become the basis of innovative technologies for exploring the real universe.

Suggestions are already beginning to flood in about subterranean habitats on the Moon and Mars, hollowed-out asteroids with a gravity of their own and biological spaceships that can repair themselves.

Scientists at the agency emphasised that the scheme does not mean they have run out of ideas, only that they want to make sure they are not overlooking any potentially useful concepts from science fiction that would otherwise be missed by the space engineers.

"It's not as if they are really desperate for ideas. It's just a creative way of looking for new ones," explained Arthur Woods, a space artist and president of the Ours Foundation in Embrach, Switzerland, which is conducting the study for the agency with the Swiss Museum of Science Fiction in Yverdon-les-Bains.

Patrick Gyger, curator ofthe museum, said: "They feel there might be something out there and it would be too bad to miss it."

He said there was a long tradition of seemingly fanciful notions in science fiction becoming reality, such as the idea of orbiting communications satellites, which were first outlined in 1945 by the science fiction guru Arthur C Clarke, nearly 20 years before the launch of Telstar.

The agency said the main objective of the study, called Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications, was "to review past and present science fiction literature, artwork and films in order to identify and assess innovative technologies and concepts described which could be possibly developed further for space applications.

"Several science fiction authors have taken modern technology and concepts of their own time and anticipated with some accuracy how new technologies would change our lives, well before these technologies were actually possible," it said.

So-called "hard" science fiction, which attempts to fantasise without breaking the known laws of physics, predicted planetary landers in works published in 1928, rocket fins for aerodynamic stability in 1929 and the construction of orbiting space stations complete with living quarters and supply ships in 1945.

More recently, scientists have made tentative breakthroughs in faster-than-light travel, supporting the concept of the "warp drive" familiar to Star Trek viewers, and quantum electrodynamic effects that might form the basis for teleportation systems, another technology visualised by Gene Roddenbury, creator of Star Trek.

Charles Sheffield, the chief scientist of Earth Satellite Corporation in Washington DCand a leading science fiction author, said that both he and Arthur C Clarke independently came up with the idea of "tethered satellites" - orbiting but tied to the ground by enormously long tethers - in separate novels published in 1979, more than 10 years before the first experimental tethered satellite was launched.

"It's certainly one of those ideas that intrigues people, although no one has yet designed a strong, lightweight tether that could stretch all the way to the ground," said Dr Sheffield, a theoretical physicist.

Other science fiction ideas that have become reality include the pressurised space suit, first visualised in the 1940s, and the gravitational "sling shot", where a spacecraft uses a planet's gravitational pull to propel itself further into space.

"This was used all the time in science fiction and is now routine in interplanetary travel but we cannot be sure which came first. Science fiction and science fact swap ideas all the time," Dr Sheffield said.

A still unsolved problem that science fiction authors have wrestled with for decades is how to get a single-stage spacecraft into orbit. All existing rockets have several launch stages, which is expensive and wasteful, Dr Sheffield said. "We are close to solving this with the next generation of rocket motors that will be used on the spaceplanes of the future," he said. The agency is watching this development closely.