Mutation and natural selection have worked well on Earth. NASA researchers are now trying to transfer some of nature's techniques into space by developing computer programs that evolve optimum codes for running a spacecraft and keep adapting as they go.
David Noever and Subbiah Baskaran at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center begin with a computer simulation of a proposed spacecraft. They then let loose a bunch of programs, each of which tries a different way to perform essential tasks, such as navigating to an asteroid using as little fuel as possible. The programs are rewarded or penalized depending on how well they work. Failures quickly go extinct; successes are combined and run through another generation.
Today's spacecraft are stuck with whatever software they had when they were launched. Evolutionary probes could adopt new programs, refine them, and beam the improved version back to Earth for the next mission. Noever also envisions a swarm of tiny, adaptive rovers that could learn from one another's mistakes and seek out the most interesting locations. "For every step you see in nature, you will see a step in the training of these spacecraft," Noever says. He hopes to test evolving software in a real spacecraft sometime in 2001.