NASA launching to outer space via cyberspace

NASA invites open-source partners

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NASA launching to outer space via cyberspacePete Worden, director of the NASA Ames Research Center, gave a speech this weekend to a different kind of audience.

He addressed the International Space Development Conference in Dallas through his avatar in the virtual world Second Life.

On one screen, the Dallas crowd watched his avatar speak, while a second screen showed a group of avatars taking in the speech on NASA’s virtual island in Second Life.

“This is not your father’s space program,” Worden said. “The new technology of virtual life and cyberspace means we can all participate in the Vision for Space Exploration.”

NASA officials say their island in Second Life could hold a key to the future of space exploration in real life.

The agency is using the virtual world as part of CoLab, an initiative that brings together a diverse group of NASA employees, business leaders, software programmers and individuals outside the traditional space community. The goal is to create a collaborative space where people working in different areas can “interact and cross-fertilize ideas,” Worden said.

Through CoLab, software experts are also working to create open-source software called CosmosCode that NASA can use in its projects. Eventually, CoLab leaders plan to build a real-world facility in San Francisco where interested parties can collaborate with NASA.

But before NASA invests the resources to build the real-life CoLab, organizers are relying on weekly meetings open to the Second Life public. CoLab’s founders say the virtual island has been an affordable way to test many of their hypotheses, increase NASA’s transparency and reach people outside their usual circle.

Participants range from NASA employees and other space professionals to Second Life novices who stumble on the NASA island. Leaders hope that such virtual programs will eventually allow ordinary people to ride along with a rover on Mars in real time by using streaming images and software programs that simulate space travel and a destination’s geography.

But for now collaborators must rely on their virtual construction skills to build models of projects on CoLab’s island.

Second Life avatars can use basic building blocks called prims to create detailed structures that can serve as models for their real-life counterparts. CoLab’s founders say that they are considering a certificate system that would reward people who contribute ideas used in NASA projects.

“I really do think this is a prototype — if we do a good job — for the way that other branches of government, other agencies can adopt the best models from the private sector and from the nonprofit sector and integrate them,” said Andrew Hoppin, CoLab’s community ambassador and co-founder of the program.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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