Submitted by htribadmin on Thu, 05/26/2011 – 05:42
By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The Big Island, of all places, has grabbed the inside track to benefit from NASA’s renewed efforts to reach the moon and beyond.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie and a NASA official signed a two-year agreement Wednesday committing the state to develop a prototype International Lunar Research Park at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
The state Office of Aerospace Development will be charged with making the research park a reality, through the UH-Hilo Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, or PISCES. Numerous advanced technologies need to be tested on Earth before being sent into the harsh environment of space.
Hawaii’s volcanic landscapes have been recognized since the Apollo program as an ideal place to test those technologies, said NASA Associate Deputy Administrator Rebecca Keiser.
“We have in Hawaii a unique moon-Mars terrain that can be used to take us to the future, to enable technology development and testing of advanced robotics, automated and tele-operated vehicles, in situ resource utilization, advanced communications, and many other technologies that are going to help us get to the moon, to Mars, and send humans beyond,” Keiser said in a brief signing ceremony in Abercrombie’s chambers in Honolulu. “This … builds on a 2007 initial agreement, and we are pleased to continue our collaboration with the state of Hawaii.”
The execution of Wednesday’s agreement with NASA’s Ames Research Center is dependent on the ability of Congress and the state Legislature to approve funds for the research center, which could be built in the area of UH-Hilo’s Science and Technology Park — home of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and various observatory headquarters. “What we would have there is a prototype of this Lunar Research Park, with robotics and all the communication capabilities, and learn how to use resources on the moon,” PISCES director Frank Schowengerdt told the Tribune-Herald.
Remotely operated technologies could be developed in Hilo and then tested on Mauna Kea, Kilauea volcano or at other sites.
Hawaii is touted as an ideal place to test future lunar technologies because the basalt rock, when crushed and heated, has many of the same properties as the regolith that comprises most of the lunar surface. In recent years, PISCES has built a temporary base camp on the midlevel slopes of Mauna Kea to test some of the lunar technologies. Engineers will return to the mountain this summer.
The agreement marks what officials hope is a new step toward a human presence beyond low-Earth orbit, which has not been achieved since the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s. The signing ceremony was held on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s joint congressional address announcing the moon missions in 1961.
Today’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, of course, is a different animal. The new moon missions will be a collaborative effort that will include commercial and international elements. To that end Schowengerdt’s first priority is to build a consortium of aerospace companies, large and small, to participate in the effort. It’s part of a larger push to get the private sector involved in the business of spaceflight, along with the state of Hawaii, NASA and foreign governments.
“The moon would be the ideal place to develop the resources to stay long periods of time, to convert the soil to oxygen and water and even rocket fuel,” Schowengerdt said. Technology developed in Hawaii could also be used on future manned missions to asteroids or even Mars.
“I think this will cause a lot of interest among the local people, and hopefully a lot of jobs,” he said, adding the idea for a research park developed out of a series of workshops NASA held in recent years.
“The very islands of Hawaii continue to provide a basis for (space) training that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the rest of our planet,” Abercrombie said in his public remarks. “We’ll be reaching into deep space.”
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