In the coming decades, NASA plans to send human crews back to the moon, build a space station in lunar orbit, establish a permanent base on the lunar surface, and—hopefully—send astronauts to Mars. What could possibly go wrong? No, seriously, what could go wrong and how would we fix it? That is the question a group of researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have been asking over the past four years as a part of a research institute to develop resilient and autonomous deep space and extraterrestrial habitations. The Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute (RETHi) is led by Purdue University, in partnership with SEAS, the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Its goal is to “design and operate resilient deep space habitats that can adapt, absorb and rapidly recover from expected and unexpected disruptions.” Justin Werfel, Senior Research Fellow in Robotics at SEAS, is leading the team tasked with developing technologies to let autonomous robots repair or replace damaged components in a habitat. “What happens if a meteorite breaches the habitat between missions, and the crew isn’t there to fix it,” asked Werfel. “Or if it happens during a crewed time, the astronauts may have their hands full with other emergencies. Likewise in more routine situations; there are a lot of regular maintenance tasks that take up valuable astronaut time, from replacing filters to cleaning things. You’d really like the habitat to be able to handle as much as possible on its own, which means robots doing that work.”
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