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PISCES space program gets $2.3M boost

<p>ANNA PACHECO/Stephens Media</p><p>A lunar robot, built for excavation purposes by students from Alabama, was on display for demonstration at the Waikoloa Beach Marriot on Tuesday morning.</p>


Stephens Media

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems on Tuesday received a $2.3 million boost in funding officials hope will make the state agency’s more appealing to NASA and other space agencies.

The funding includes $1.8 million geared for the space center’s plans to expand its facilities and $500,000 to cover operations, said Rob Kelso, who began serving as PISCES’ executive director Nov. 1. The money will improve PISCES facilities, including the construction of a space technology research and development complex, to provide not only testing grounds, but also the ability to design and develop technologies. Specifics on the plans will be released at a later date.

“Our goal is to become the preferred provider for space agencies and commercial space businesses around the world that are developing technologies to help enable and sustain planetary surface exploration,” he said.

“PISCES, from its inception in 2007, has been focused rather narrowly on robotic analog training of robotic systems in high quality sites like Hawaii in preparation for eventual flights to other planetary surfaces,” Kelso said.

The facility could be operational in 2014, following site selection, and environmental and cultural review, said Hawaii Sen. Will Espero, D-Lower Waipahu and Ewa Beach, who helped introduce legislation in the 2012 session for funding and transferring the agency from the control of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

With the expansion, PISCES hopes to do more than just test rovers, said Kelso. It has four areas it would like to grow: planetary surface robotics; in situ resource utilization; skylight and lava tube traversing; and habitation.

“While our near term objectives are in those four tech areas, the eventual plan we have … is to develop a research park … where industry can come in, locate and work and operate within an aerospace or economic zone on the Big Island,” he said.

PISCES announced the funding during its annual conference, which continues through Friday at the Waikoloa Beach Marriot Resort and Spa in South Kohala. In addition, the agency announced the hiring of Kelso as its executive director following the retirement of Frank Schowengerdt, who headed PISCES for five years. Kelso, who hails from Texas, is a former Space Shuttle Flight Director for NASA with 37 years of experience at Johnson Space Center in Houston, among other credentials.

PISCES also said it will host special tests of robotic rovers competing for the International Google Lunar X PRIZE, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. One of them, a Japanese rover from the multinational White Label Space team, as well as a University of Alabama robot excavator, not affiliated with the Google competition, were on display Tuesday and will be demonstrated Friday at PISCES test sites on Mauna Kea and Kilauea.

Since founded in 2007, PISCES has hosted research and testing of space technology as well as forums. It collaborates with government, education, business and cultural entities on the Big Island and has developed test sites on the lower slopes of Mauna Kea, where the volcanic soil is similar to the surface of asteroids, the moon and Mars.

The test sites have allowed technology to be developed helping future robotic and human explorers survive and operate on harsh planetary surfaces. Among the technologies are robots, rovers, and equipment for producing air and water, necessities for survival outside of planet Earth.

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