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Thursday, 11 May, 2000, 09:24 GMT 10:24 UK
Science fiction powers space research
Future BBC
By BBC News Online internet correspondent Mark Ward

The European Space Agency (Esa) is studying science fiction for ideas and technologies that could be used in future missions.

A panel of readers is currently combing sci-fi novels and short stories published in the early decades of the last century to see if technology has caught up with ideas that were futuristic when first put into print.

Phone BBC
Ideas often run ahead of available technology
Any good ideas turned up in the search will be assessed by scientists to see if they can help the agency in its ongoing mission to explore space.

Knowledgeable fans of science fiction are also being encouraged to send in suggestions to help Esa spot sources of good ideas.

While technologies such as warp drives remain in the realm of fiction, many of the technologies authors employed in stories are now commonplace.

Dr David Raitt, co-ordinator of the Innovative Technologies From Science Fiction For Space Applications project (ISTF), said an initial scan had already proved the worth of the approach.

Inventive ideas

Planetary landers were mentioned in stories from 1928, stabilising fins on rockets appeared in fiction in 1929 and a space station crewed by astronauts and re-supplied by regular flights from Earth was considered in 1945.

Dr Raitt said the Dick Tracy cartoons in the 1940s had the lantern-jawed detective using a watch that was also a videophone and a camera. In January, Casio introduced a wristwatch that is also a digital camera. "Only relatively recently have some of these ideas come to fruition," he said.

The fax machine dates back to the 1890s

Prof Ian Stewart, University of Warwick
Ian Stewart, a mathematics professor from the University of Warwick and a science fiction author and fan said Nasa regularly consulted living authors for exploration ideas: "Nasa uses SF authors in focus groups for the pre-planning of missions."

Authors such as Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and Larry Niven have helped Nasa draw up ideas for a mission to explore Europa - one of the moons of Jupiter.

Nasa wants to go to Europa because pictures taken by the Voyager and Galileo probes suggest there may be oceans beneath the moon's icy surface. The agency looked to the authors to come up with inventive ideas for piercing the ice to get at the molten world below.

Waiting for technology

Nasa is also conducting research into futuristic ideas such as warp drives. The ultimate aim of its Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project is a massless engine for a spacecraft that would be able to reach near-light speeds.

Europa BBC
Do warmer oceans lurk beneath the icy surface of Europa?
Although the agency has yet to turn directly to old stories for inspiration, Professor Stewart believes such an approach will be fruitful: "You don't need to get much out of it to make it very worthwhile."

He said that although many authors employ devices such as matter transmitters that no-one has a clue how to create, others come up with ideas that only become science fact years later thanks to a technological breakthrough.

"The fax machine dates back to the 1890s," he said, "But the electronics of the time were not up to job."

Professor Stewart's first science fiction novel is due to be published in October.

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