With everyday advancement in space technology, it is the need of time that astronauts exploring the Moon or Mars should have smart habitats that will support life and remain functional when the astronauts return to earth. To improve the design of independent systems for space habitats, NASA is financing a multi-university Space Technology Research Institute named Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration, or more appropriately, HOME.
Mario Bergés, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE), is supervising the Carnegie Mellon University research team functioning under the umbrella of HOME. Their task is to facilitate complete situational awareness in the habitat by supplying it with abilities to compute and infer its own data and make option recommendations that can be delivered on to robotic systems or proposed to human inhabitants.
“Space is rough and blunders can be disastrous, so we need independent systems that are very good,” Bergés said. One concept, the team is discovering is the incorporation of artificial intelligence to examine equipment data to understand electricity use in the habitat. By knowing how power is used, then the standing of all the electric-powered systems in the habitat could be checked.
Scientists have tested conducting data analysis for equipment on Earth, but Bergés said we have to learn how to convert this knowledge from the perspective of space and particularly to the systems in these habitats.
For instance, on Earth, there are a range of air-conditioning systems and we know where possible faults are and how they occur can be identified. But in the space habitats, all the systems will be one-offs.
“How do you conduct automatic fault recognition and diagnosis without a lot of system data? This is where AI comes on board,” Bergés said. “We have machines that acquire knowledge by themselves if you give them sufficient data, but we don’t have a lot of apparatuses that can reason by using current engineering knowledge, which can decrease the amount of data they need.”
To control the amount of data needed to identify equipment faults all through the habitat, the team will gather electrical measurements. These statistics will be shared with robotic systems that will process it and work on the physical environment, and, in theory, facilitate the habitat to maintain itself.
The CMU team includes Bergés, an expert in sensing and data analysis for structure; Burcu Akinci, a CEE lecturer and professional in information modeling; and Artur Dubrawski and Stephen Smith from CMU’s Robotics Institute, who will lead research on robotic systems and machine learning. CMU’s research will feed into other ventures proceeding in the institute.
HOME is financed for five years for about $15 million, and NASA may apply commendations spinning out from the institute before the funding time ends. According to Bergés, CMU’s research could inform the blueprint of a gateway station that will rotate around the Moon as part of NASA’s deep-space investigation plans.
Bergés believes that civil engineers have a part to play in space exploration. “Since the start, civil engineers have been the wardens of the infrastructure that supports modern life,” he said. “If humanity is migrating into space, it makes sense for civil engineers to be part of that.”