Science fiction is the infinite realm of what might be, sometimes just a few minutes into the future. The new Star Wars movie flashes dozens of futuristic concepts past the viewer's eyes - but how likely are these concepts? Some might be closer than you think. Check the possibilities below and click to the stories about the research that NASA is conducting today to make tomorrow happen.
Building A Cool City
Want to build a city on another world? First you'll need lots of electricity. One way to do that is to use the soil of Mars to build acres of rectennas, antennas that turn microwaves - beamed from a satellite in aerostationary orbit - into electrical power. And of course, you'll want to design it from the start so it doesn't become an "urban heat island."
Does It Do Windows?
Want something like C3PO, a butler to answer the door and sweep the dust off the table and another to do odd jobs around the house (don't forget the restraint bolt!)? It will involve a number of technologies, including the devices that make the arms and legs work. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is working on artificial muscles that could be used as actuators in future space mini-probes, or in droids.
The Face Is Familiar ...
Speculations on the size, shape, intelligence, and friendliness of alien beings have done more to illuminate how we perceive ourselves and our world. Still, how would we recognize a non-terrestrial life form, things a lot smaller than Jaba the Hut? NASA's Astrobiology Institute developing techniques for using special microscopes and computer programs to sift through soil samples in search of microbes, the first extraterrestrials we are likely to encounter.
Speed Checked By Radar
Who's directing traffic? In the 21st century, the U.S. skies could look a little bit like a scene in "Phantom Menace" where everyone seems to by flying around town. NASA's Advanced General Aviation Technology Experiment is developing the tools that could make it possible.
You've Got Mail
Transmitting enough data through a communications line to produce 3D images, or just satisfy Internet access for everyone, is one of the challenges facing modern communications. Traditional silica-based optical fibers can't quite haul the load, but exotic heavy-metal glass fibers called ZBLAN, manufactured in the microgravity of space, hold tremendous promise. For superfast computing when the data arrive, nonlinear optics may hold the answer.
Even a journey of a thousand light years starts with a single step into low Earth orbit. One way to take that step in the next century is on "Highways of Light ." In the near term, we might start with a sled ride on the Maglifter, or by some other advanced propulsion ideas.
How Many Light-Years To The Nanogram?
You don't want to hang around in orbit when Imperial Destroyers are on the way. NASA scientists don't have a hyperdrive - yet - but they are looking at unusual propulsion concepts, from sails and tethers, to fusion and everyone's favorite, antimatter.
Mysterious Explosions In Space
Some newspaper wags have wondered if mysterious gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) observed by satellites are caused by alien civilizations duking it out in deep space. We've pretty much ruled that out, but we still aren't sure exactly what does cause GRBs. For the latest, read the Autopsy of an Explosion. - then come back in October for the Fifth Huntsville Gamma-Ray Burst Symposium for even newer results.
It won't stop blasters or death rays, but aerogel may help keep the heat out - or in - in the 21st century. NASA is using space experiments to understand how to form aerogel - "frozen smoke" - so we can eliminate the bluish tint that limits its use as a super-insulting window. Aerogel has already been used in space, helping the Soujourner Mars rover stay warm.
The Droids Came Marching Two By Two
Where do the carbon-based life forms in Star Wars get all those droids? NASA scientists plan to 'breed' better spacecraft using artificial intelligence. Such a strategy mimics nature, and may be one of the most efficient methods of future spacecraft design
The Original Star Wars
They ended about a millennium before George Lucas was born. The last four centuries of the Maya Civilization saw the rise of Star Wars, so named by archeologists because they apparently were linked to the planet Venus and the astrological beliefs of their priests. Now, NASA is using satellites and other technology to study Mayan remains in search of clues to how they might have destroyed their environment so we can prevent a repeat of that destruction as the Central American population grows.
Can I Get One In Red?
Oh, yes. The light sabers. We don't do light sabers. So far, NASA crews haven't packed anything more dangerous than a survival knife (or the food, according to some astronauts). But the way the Jedi Masters swing their sabers, perhaps they could sign up for baseball on Mars.
It might all sound like science fiction - but so did papers written in the 1920s by Robert Goddard, and Wernher von Braun in the early 1950s, about going to the Moon.