The Orbital Flight Of The Bumblebee?

SMALLER, FASTER, CHEAPER. That's the new motto at NASA. And scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory are working on concepts that could take the slogan to its logical conclusion: satellites the size of insects.

Designing satellites to survive the hazards of space once involved "anticipating all possible failure modes and designing around them," says Los Alamos physicist Kurt R. Moore. That led to sophisticated and redundant systems, adding bulk and cost. But today's advanced hardware and software can fail in so many ways that "you simply can't anticipate everything anymore," he says.

So his team is turning to nature for inspiration. Insects and other small creatures may have simple nervous systems, yet they perform very complicated tasks. Researcher Mark W. Tilden has developed an approach to neural-network technology, dubbed nervous nets, to simulate simple behaviors, not complex problem-solving. For example, just two nervous-net neurons are needed for a control system that can keep solar cells pointed at the sun.

Tilden also hopes to model the capabilities of bumblebees to avoid collisions, enabling fragile microsatellites to avoid space debris.

Could such satellites take pictures of the earth? Maybe, says Moore. He envisions clusters of microsats, each of which produces one pixel for a large image. The clusters' operation might be coordinated the same way fireflies "learn" to synchronize their flashing. That could also be the key to generating enough power to transmit the results to earth.