NASA is planning to launch a challenge for the public and scientific community to design a self-assembling robot with artificial intelligence that can explore the surface of the Moon, William Harris, CEO of Space Centre Houston said Tuesday. Space Centre Houston in the US, the official visitor centre for NASA Johnson Space Centre, conducts regular public outreach programmes to engage people of various ages and diverse backgrounds in scientific research.
These programmes encourage students and scientists to ideate innovative solutions for problems that the US space agency is trying to overcome in order to carry out successful space exploration missions.
"The next challenge is for the Moon -- it will be announced next year -- to develop a self-assembling robot or rover on the Moon's surface that has an artificial intelligence platform, so it can make decisions based on what it is learning about the lunar surface," Harris told PTI in an interview.
"The reality is, when we sent humans to the Moon back in the 1960s, just going there and coming back safely was a huge accomplishment. We did not do a huge amount of science during those missions," he said.
Most of the astronauts then were test pilots. The first and only scientist to have visited the Moon is Harrison Schmitt, an American geologist, who is now the last living crew member of Apollo 17, Harris said.
There was very little scope to perform scientific experiments and to date there is a lot we do not know about the Moon, he said.
However, the astronauts that NASA recruits now are scientists.
With plans underway to take humans back to the lunar surface, the US space agency is working on efficient technologies that can assist astronauts to conduct scientific experiments on the Moon.
In the recent decades, evidence of frozen water beneath the surface of the Moon has emerged.
This not only presents the possibility for the Moon to host some form of primitive life, but also opens avenues for future astronauts to harvest water and set up a space colony.
The water could also be broken down to provide hydrogen fuel, using which we could send missions into deeper space, Harris said.
"NASA has come to recognise that you can become to insular with your own team. So, it is better to open up to the general public to see if somebody has ideas that can help us address different challenges," he said.
Harris gave an example of a space robotics challenge in the past, that aimed to programme NASA's humanoid Valkyrie to perform human-like tasks.
"Within the group of ten semi-finalists, we had teams from two of the top universities. But the winner of the challenge was a stay-at-home dad, who came with his 6-year-old son," said Harris.
His solutions are now being used by NASA to programme Valkyrie. Involving the public in this way can help space programmes flourish and break new grounds, he said.
Harris was in New Delhi as a part of a delegation of representatives seeking to strengthen ties with Indian companies and to learn about the latest developments in the country's business environment and industries like aerospace, healthcare and information technology.