DALLAS, Texas ? Taking a step into the new frontier, NASA Ames Research Center, under the direction of Simon ?Pete? Worden, has launched an island in Second Life, an online 3-D virtual world created, shaped, and owned by its participants.

If successful, the partnership could offer a powerful new tool to increase global participation in NASA?s exploration agenda, one day allowing the public to ?take part? in returning to the Moon, future missions to Mars, the ?asteroids and beyond?all without the need of a spacesuit.

Worden, both in avatar form?known as Simon Pete Raymaker?as well as in person, spoke Saturday at the National Space Society?s (NSS) 26th annual International Space Development Conference being held here.

?We at NASA are working hard to create opportunities for what I might call participatory exploration,? Worden?s avatar told participants at today?s panel. An avatar is an out-of-body, Internet representation of herself or himself, alive and well and working within cyberspace.

Second Life

Worden detailed the work of the space agency?s CoLab?a Collaborative Space Exploration Laboratory being developed to partner with technologists and the entrepreneurial community. CoLab is an online space where individuals can collaborate in Second Life.

Appearing as an avatar, Worden spoke from a digitized NASA Island to conference attendees, spotlighting a number of future opportunities unfolding in the space agency?s vision for space exploration.

Projected onto two giant screens on either side of the podium, conference antendees watched as Worden?s avatar simutaneously ?addressed? a group of Second Life avatars in their virtual world?citizens with names like Space Pioneer Michael Widget and Space Settler Rocket Sellers. Meanwhile on the other screen, Worden?s avatar "spoke" to the real world audience.

?We?re using the power of virtual environments to expand our reach,? Worden said. ?We are looking at how this island can be a portal for all to fly along on space missions. Real data from real missions such as the International Space Station can be ported into virtual environments,? he added.

The technology, though, is not without its drawbacks as Worden?s avatar crashed several times, forcing the real-life NASA Ames director to come out from the behind the curtain and meet his public.

?We can walk or fly along with a lunar rover as it makes its way over the lunar landscape,? Worden said. ?Your avatar can explore along with those of scientists and engineers managing the mission.?

Worden said that, in this manner, everyone can participate in space exploration. ?When the next people step onto the surface of the Moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them,? he noted.

Activate opportunity

The use of virtual worlds, Second Life, as well as the development of open source software?called Cosmos Code by Worden, is being championed by NASA in new partnerships with traditional and non-traditional entities, he said.

By matching the attributes of cyberspace with small, inexpensive space probes using micro-satellite technologies, a new world of space exploration is feasible, Worden suggested. ?As we expand into and settle the solar system?we?ll all be going.?

?This is not your father?s space program,? Worden said. ?The new technology of virtual life in cyberspace means we can all participate in the vision for space exploration. The revolution in nanotechnology means we can do pretty surprising things in very small packages too.?

Worden told SPACE.com that one of the key objectives of the vision is to activate the private sector to activate opportunity. Using the cyberspace tools and techniques being created via partnerships at Ames Research Center, individuals can design projects, analyze data, ?or just go along for the ride,? he said.

As for Ames being in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area?that?s been a big assist in stirring up the creative juices, Worden explained. ?We start seeing people come over that actually have big wallets as well as big ideas?so that?s been helpful.?

Following Worden's presentation, NSS executive director George Whitesides announced that the society had also established an island in Second Life adjacent to the NASA Ames virtual domain.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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