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The future of space exploration could be determined in San Antonio. NASA announced Monday it was creating two university-based institutes to delve into the technologies critical to keeping habitats alive and maintained in deep space travel, largely unmanned.
“The uniqueness of going to the moon and then on to Mars is (the habitats) will be most of the time uncrewed,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator for NASA’s space technology mission directorate
The announcement comes not long after the Trump administration’s push to get Americans back to the moon by 2024.
NASA wants to automate aspects of the smart habitats. The University of Texas San Antonio will assist in adapting software and robots to maintain in harsh environments as well as deal with unforeseen events while manned or unmanned.
“I mean we’re pushing for smart homes here on Earth that can sustain hurricanes, earthquakes, so why not do it on Mars or the moon?” said Arturo Montoya, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio.
UTSA is part of the Resilient Extra Terrestrial Habitats institute (RETHi) institute that will focus on creating disaster scenarios and the software, robotics and calculations to recover quickly.
“There’s a group that will be brainstorming what could be the unforeseen events and how we adapt to those events. So it’s the interaction between robots, humans and software,” he said.
Montoya is a civil engineer who spends his time calculating and modeling the safety of bridges and buildings and teaching students how to do the same. But after meeting Purdue professor Shirley Dyke, who will lead the institute, he was sold on exploring how these skills could be used in space. He will hire three graduate students to assist in the modeling.
RETHi is led by the University of Purdue and includes Harvard and the University of Connecticut.
The second institute — the Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME) institute — is focused on autonomous systems and machine learning. It includes Texas A&M University.
“We get a lot of benefit from being able to leverage the university systems and the partnerships they have, said Rueter. “We end up getting quite a bit out.”
Rueter said it is targeted and time limited to increase the likelihood of attracting young talented doctoral students, noting five years is a good amount of time to allow them to research.
NASA’s grant will be up to $15 million over five years for each institute.