May 26, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin in Space without a Helmet

“Space agencies may one day have Charles Darwin to thank for the longevity of their spacecraft,” began an article in New Scientist.  This seems a strange thing to write about a biologist who knew nothing of space travel.  “The life expectancy of a popular type of ion engine has been almost doubled using software that mimics the way natural selection evolves ever fitter designs.”  This seems a strange thing to write about a biologist who knew nothing of software, engines or ions.
    Cody Farnell, a space flight engineer at Colorado State University, was inspired by the father of evolutionary theory to design “evolution-mimicking software” called a genetic algorithm (GA), the article explained.  It randomly varied the grid geometry and the voltages applied to it for a new ion-drive spacecraft engine design.  Farnell considered these values as roughly analogous to genes in biology.  “If the performance was promising, the ‘genetic material’ was subjected to further random changes, or mutation, and this process was repeated until no more improvements were forthcoming,’ the article said – survival of the fittest.
    Farnell did not say if his engine had to fight with other engines for mates, or whether females of the species had to lay eggs or raise their young.  It’s also not clear whether the engines would be able to fend for themselves in the wild without Farnell’s intelligently guiding hands.

Darwin needs the oxygen of intelligent design to breathe, just like other mortals.

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