AlgoMantra, b. 2005

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Monday, April 07, 2008
How to Grow a Spaceship - Part I
I believe in a future where your spaceship is like your family car, parked in your garage. When something's broken, you should be able to fix it, and when it is stolen or destroyed you should be able to build a new one from scratch. Its literally your cow.

While the space elevator maybe a grand endeavour in its vision, I do not buy the argument that it is cost-efficient compared to manned spacecraft. Cost-efficient for who exactly? Not everybody works for NASA, and not everyone believes in Jack's beanstalk.

Much attention is being paid to the Japanese project aiming at releasing a number of paper-origami planes from the International Space Station. Newspapers have gushed, calling it -
....the longest ever flight by a paper plane: if one of the fleet should miraculously make it to earth, its journey will have been around 400km.
I don't see how this qualifies as flight, considering you are not going against gravity. At best, it would qualify as a rather expensive, gliding drop back to the earth.

Growing Spaceships in Processing

The first phase of our work this year involves simulated models of "artificial atmospheres". These atmospheres (or trajectories) will help us evolve stable, aerodynamic objects that may serve as unconventional designs for spacecrafts that may be used in traversing atmospheres present in the solar system, or beyond. We will be using Processing for this purpose, so that the simulator can be web-based and all you astronauts out there can play with it. Playing with it would mean aerodynamic modelling as a god-game, like making creatures in Spore.

Artificial atmospheres, or artificial physics, and environments can be modelled using the cellular automaton approach. The ideas therein are better expressed by the essay on computational monadology by Eric Steinhart. It's basically the monad-metaphysics of Leibniz remixed with cellular automatons.

I have no idea how much more efficiency can be achieved by using the traditional CFD (computational fluid dynamics) and 'physics engine' approach, but then, we want to try something that hasn't been explored at all - movement against gravity using very low Reynold's numbers (pdf). An excerpt that summaries my Bergsonesque approach to life:
.........what low Reynolds number means. Inertia plays no role whatsoever. If you are at very low Reynolds number, what you are doing at the moment is entirely determined by the forces that are exerted on you at that moment, and by nothing in the past.
It's a fantastic essay about a fascinating topic. Here we learn how organisms like Escherichia coli move in a fluid, under the influence of very "small forces".

So what we're going to do is define abstract physical dynamics, and aerodynamic, fluidic forces acting in a region, and then we will allow users to place material objects, shapes and mechanisms in the region to test whether that 'machine' is stable under the impact of those forces. There is an alternative to CFD, which is related to automata, a recently popular technique of modeling fluids called Lattice-Boltzmann. You can have a look at a very convincing Java animation on the mesoscopic scale. I also suspect that Fourier theory might have a decisive role in our design and operational philosophy. It is never too late to go back three centuries and wonder what someone would have done in a Victorian steampunk kind of way to achieve a similar objective.

Of course, an online animation will not have the computational muscle to simulate an actual atmosphere (even supercomputers don't). The only perfect simulation of the earth's atmosphere is the earth's atmosphere itself.

So we are going to try a novel, minimal approach. Many of these artificial atmospheres, which can be radically altered with a few variables, will probably not exist on Earth, or on nearby planets. Perhaps they exist only in some other parallel Universe. Conway's Game of Life is in fact entirely another Universe, in which "grow" its own gliders. The idea is simple - a model that might not work in an artificial universe, might work in this seemingly natural one, our own universe. The question still remains, how to grow a spaceship design out of this simulation that will actually work in "reality"? What kind of designs can we expect to see?

I have no clue whatsoever, but a few mornings ago when I went out for my morning run, I saw a cephalopod against the rising sun.