Image: Shuttle and station
Second Life / Linden Lab
A virtual space shuttle and international space station have been built to scale for Second Life avatars to explore in "low Earth orbit."
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 3/30/2007 1:04:46 PM ET 2007-03-30T17:04:46

Is there such a thing as virtual vertigo? If so, that must have been what I was feeling as I fell to Earth from the planet Pluto.

Yes, the synthetic world known as Second Life has things that are not of this world, including floating launch pads, mini-planets, space shuttles and an international space station. More is on the way: environments that look and feel like the moon, for instance, or simulated lava tubes that could help researchers build real-life bases on the moon or Mars.

The colonization of virtual outer space hints at the shape of things to come, for NASA as well as less traditional players on the final frontier. And along the way, the virtual-world pioneers are encountering some of the same technical and bureaucratic challenges they deal with in the real world.

Science fiction is a huge draw in Second Life — an online environment where more than 5 million user-controlled characters, or "avatars," can interact with each other. There are virtual enclaves for fans of "Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica," "Serenity" and other outer-space realms from films and TV shows. But what we're talking about here is a different level of virtual space, drawing upon real spacecraft and real-life organizations.

You can stroll (or fly) through the International Spaceflight Museum, where 52 virtual rockets from 12 countries are on display — including a mammoth Saturn 5, a fully loaded space shuttle and the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

"I call it an art project that got out of hand," said the museum's founder, Katherine Prawl (who is known in Second Life as Kat Lemieux). She said the museum will soon unveil a virtual space shuttle with moving parts and a cockpit that avatars can sit in, crafted by rocket builder Jimbo Perhaps.

"It's too big to fly in Second Life, but it's just beautiful," she told MSNBC.com.

From the museum's grounds, you can fly (or teleport) straight up to what passes for low Earth orbit, where a shuttle can be seen closing in to dock with the space station. From there, you can teleport to floating displays of the planets — a solar system lineup that still includes Pluto. In virtual miles, the Pluto display isn't nearly as far from Earth's surface as the real thing (3 billion miles), but it's still quite a fall if you jump off the edge.

If you know the right people, you can launch your own model rockets, or ride skyward on the tip of a ballistic missile. "What's really fun is when you can go out and build your own rocket," said Robin Snelson (a.k.a. Rocket Sellers), who gave a presentation on Second Life rocketry at last week's Space Access '07 conference.

Serious benefit
Snelson and other space activists have set up virtual shop on (and above) Space CoLab Island, adjacent to the International Spaceflight Museum. The island, which serves as Second Life's nexus for NASA and allied space groups, boasts a high-tech headquarters building, a mountaintop meeting room and amphitheater, and three levels of "skypods" floating directly above the mountain.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 "Space CoLab Island is the community hub, if you will, for these efforts. It's where professional networkng and knowledge sharing happens," said MoonFront's Andrew Hoppin (a.k.a. Drew Frobozz), who is working with NASA's Ames Research Center to develop partnerships in the online and offline entrepreneurial worlds. A real-life CoLab center, corresponding to the Second Life presence, is under development in San Francisco.

NASA is serious about using Second Life as a frontier for collaboration and technology, said Jessy Cowan-Sharp (a.k.a. DragonFire Kelly) of Ames Research Center. "If you look at the functionality of Second Life, it's really just a set of tools that you can do whatever you want with," she told MSNBC.com. "There's so much more going on with Second Life than games."

Test bed for exploration
Cowan-Sharp sees Second Life as a natural test bed for building scientifically accurate representations of other worlds, based on data flowing in from interplanetary probes. "Imagine your online 'avatar' standing beside a rover as it makes its way across the Martian surface — in real time," she wrote in a briefing document.

Collaboration between Second Lifers could add another dimension to the test bed.

"Our avatars could be sitting next to each other in Second Life, and real-time data could be flowing in from a rover on Mars, and I could say, 'What if we combine that data with the data we brought in yesterday?'" she said.

Another scenario might call for a crew of avatars could test the virtual representation of a communications system on a virtual moon, to figure out which combination of radio or laser relays would be most efficient.

Alien and earthly experiments
Some experiments are already under way on CoLab's island complex: The Oregon L5 Society is spearheading the construction of a lava tube habitat, suitable for the moon or Mars, while another project is focusing on Martian habitat-building and terraforming.

Even as they replicate alien worlds, NASA and space-savvy Second Lifers are replicating earthly interactions as well. "Our first few months in Second Life have really been about building community, almost above content," Cowan-Sharp explained.

That sometimes means dealing with thorny issues from real life, NASA-style. For example, at a CoLab meeting this week, Drew (that is, Hoppin) and DragonFire (Cowan-Sharp) agonized along with other avatars over whether space entrepreneurs could have their corporate logos displayed on CoLab virtual property. The verdict? Not until NASA figures out "how to jump through the legal hoops," Drew typed.

Some wondered whether the situation called for a "CoLab Research Park," analogous to the commercial NASA Research Park that's adjacent to Ames in Mountain View, Calif. "Interesting," Dragonfire typed.

When worlds collide
There'll be more collisions between the real and virtual worlds in the weeks and months ahead: On April 12, Second Lifers have planned 24 hours' worth of activities for Yuri's Night, a worldwide celebration of human spaceflight. And during May's annual International Space Development Conference, Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, is due to deliver an address in Second Life.

In addition to CoLab, other real-world organizations are building outer-space views into their own virtual-world facilities. The Second Life analog to San Francisco's Exploratorium, known as the 'Splo, has displays relating to eclipses and other scientific topics. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is focusing on climate and sea simulations. And the Second Life Observatory, modeled after the University of Denver's Mount Evans Meyers-Womble Observatory, offers views of real astronomical targets through a virtual telescope.

One "next step" under consideration is using virtual-world observatories as an interface for controlling real-world telescopes, and passing the resulting imagery back to the virtual stargazer in real time.

Future space in Second Life
Further down the line, virtual worlds could help motivate kids to stick with math and science for the long haul, said Daniel Laughlin (a.k.a. Greyark Hightower), an education researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and project manager for NASA Learning Technologies.

For example, seventh-graders might play a hybrid video game that involves creating a virtual moon base. "By the time they're in college, they're using the moon base they built as their launch point for building a very large telescope array on Europa to look for extrasolar planets," he told MSNBC.com.

Laughlin himself has been working on a NASA-based educational game focusing on the agency's vision for going back to the moon and on to Mars.

Could Second Life give residents the sense of riding a spaceship into orbit? Not yet: For now, virtual rockets that are blasted with enough force to go into orbit simply disappear once they reach a certain height, then end up being returned to the "lost and found" in Second Life. But Laughlin said there's no ironclad reason why space couldn't be simulated.

"You could certainly create an area that forces the lighting to nighttime and populate it with stars," he mused. "The tools for the physics of Second Life are fairly sophisticated, if you could do the programming that can make it do everything that you wanted to simulate. ... You would have to do the coding to adjust the gravity."

Cowan-Sharp, meanwhile, would like to find ways to standardize the tools used to transform real-life data sets into virtual environments — so that a virtual Mars created for Second Life could be easily morphed into custom-made simulations for NASA, or perhaps upgraded for a Third, Fourth or Fifth Life.

"It's clear that there's nothing out there that's even close to what Second Life is capable of ... yet," Cowan-Sharp said. "But you can only imagine what the capabilities will be in 10 years."

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