NASA researcher's lecture explores new horizons
A talk titled "Worlds to Explore: Autonomy Challenges for Human Space Flight," Kortenkamp spoke Monday about the direction of manned space missions. The focus of his work is the autonomy which will allow astronauts to do more scientific research in the two major fields of life-support systems and robotics.
Kortenkamp defined "life support" as the ability to create an enclosed natural bioshpere for space explorers to live in, from which little energy would be lost. It would be, a self-supporting environment in which all waste would be recycled, energy would be reaped from the sun, and all food would be grown and harvested.
This is a radical departure from the present system in which waste accumulates, energy is limited, and all food needed must be transported from earth, lowering the amount of time that can be spent in space.
Another pillar of the quest for longer and more efficient space flight would be robotics, said Kortenkamp. A sufficiently autonomous system of robots could be employed to take over much of the maintenance and systems-monitoring responsibilities that astronauts presently do, freeing the crew to do scientific work.
The development of such systems won't be easy, however.
"Weight equals cost," Kortenkamp said .First there is the issue of growing food in this environment. Closely linked to this is water management, as both the food grown and the inhabitants of the system need water.
Any food grown also needs carbon dioxide. Thus, Kortenkamp said, human waste could conceivably be burnt to produce water and carbon dioxide for the plants.
There is also the issue of efficient power generation and distribution. He went on to talk about an ongoing attempt by NASA to build a Mars-like atmosphere, called Bio-Plex, to study the feasibility of this concept even further.
Kortenkamp introduced "Robonaut"-a prototype robot designed to study ways in which robots can be utilized to enhance the safety and productivity of the crew. Projections for the humanoid test robot include voice and gesture recognition as part of a broader goal of significant autonomy.
This would benefit the crew in several ways. One effect would be to reduce Extravehicular Activity, such as external repairs and exploration, that are very time consuming and risky.
"I would say we're looking at 50 years," said Kortenkamp. He also said, "Stuff we thought was hard-like chess-was easy. Stuff we thought was easy-was incredibly hard."
Kortenkamp said that a lot of work was still needed in order to ensure
that the final products of the life-support and robotics research would
be reliable enough to protect human lives in the future.