Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bill Stone: Bravado and Robots

Here's another interesting person I "met" through a TED conference video. Bill Stone is an explorer and engineer who isn't afraid to go the extra mile, even if he has to build a robot to do it, and even if the extra mile is straight down, or at the Moon's south pole, or under the ice of Europa.

Stone has done some serious deep cave exploring, and his company, Stone Aerospace has built some amazing underwater equipment to aid in exploring deep underground bodies of water. He has extended this to autonomous vehicles (robots) that have explored, imaged, and measured otherwise inaccessible underground lakes. NASA is now testing Stone's latest vehicle, ENDURANCE, in a Wisconsin lake, in preparation for more challenging tests in Antarctica. A future and presumably smarter version of this robot could someday search for life in the under-ice ocean that is thought to exist on Jupiter's moon Europa. Of course drilling through kilometers of ice to get to the water is a big problem, but people have thought about that too, as shown in this video (the Europa part starts around 5:00, the landing around 6:30 - too bad the JIMO mission was canceled, but someday...).

As with caves on Earth, Stone is not content to leave all space exploration to robots. Near the end of the TED video he describes a proposed mission to establish a base at the Moon's south pole, where ice would be mined and converted to rocket fuel and oxidizer, including the propellants needed to get his mining team home (I'd guess that this would be great motivation for getting everything to work). Yes, his mining team - Stone proposes that this mission would be privately funded, and he intends to personally lead it. By 2015. It will need some serious robot assistance. And some serious rocket support, not to mention crew vehicles and lunar landers (he's not counting on NASA for any of this). This is certainly a bold and exciting idea, and it's not only for the adventure - Stone proposes that space-based fuel depots will be the key to opening up space for private enterprise. I hope he's right and that he met a lot of "angels" and "super-angels" at that TED conference. He certainly doesn't suffer from lack of ambition.

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