NASA’s Next Technology: Self-Desructing Spacecraft

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Swarming spacecraft that will destruct for the greater good may seem like a better plot for a sci-fi thriller than the future of NASA’s space mission.

According to a recent U.S. patent application, the agency is ditching the one large space shuttle model and opting for a fleet of smaller and cheaper spacecrafts programmed with a new self-sacrifice mechanism. Should one craft begin to fail and risk damaging another craft, it will commit hara-kiri to save the others, Wired reports. Batteries would be discharged and remaining fuel would be vented to stop it from exploding upon collision. The “survivors” would then automatically navigate around the lifeless ship.

Strongly influenced by the self-sacrificing behavior found in nature, it resembles swarms of worker bees who not only defend the hive with their stingers, but also freeze to death to protect the queen from the winter cold.

In an interview with the New Scientist, Richard Holdaway, director of space technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot, U.K., says developing NASA’s idea is far from easy. “Having 10 to 100 spacecraft with optical, infrared and radar sensors swarming together offers great scope for science missions ­ but it’s one hell of a technical and software challenge,” he says. “A self-sacrifice mechanism that adjusts the constellation as a whole when units fail is a wise move.”

It’s not the first time space industry has toyed with self-destructing tech. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is working on “suicide satellites” that would attach to large chunks of space junk and fire a rocket to propel the junk into the atmosphere. And the Surrey Space Centre in Guildford, U.K., is creating a probe solar sail that can be raised at the end of its mission to brake against the upper atmosphere, leading it to burn up in flames. (via Wired U.K.)

-Tara Kelly