Final Virtual Frontier

Virtual space exploration is at the fingertips of graduate students working at the ASTRO Center as they take technology similar to Minecraft to give an innovative way to prep for space travel.

The program, called SpaceCRAFT, will be open source, meaning anyone who downloads the free software will be able to add models of any structure they can imagine, using mathematical equations or codes.

However, SpaceCRAFT isn’t just for the math geniuses of the world. Once a model is uploaded onto the site, if the creator of that model chooses to keep it open source, anyone can use that model.

Mauricio Coen, aerospace engineering PhD candidate and the project leader for SpaceCRAFT said the release date for the software will be in 2017, but it will start out as a basic platform with just a few planets, such as Earth and potentially Mars, as well as some asteroids.  

NASA, who is advising the team, will use the software to plan and simulate entire missions virtually in order to test for issues, which — without the software — are unpredictable.

“Virtual reality gives you a new perspective on what you’re building,” said Robert Hogan, first year graduate student and master architect for SpaceCRAFT.

Gregory Chamitoff, former astronaut and current director of the AeroSpace Technology Research and Operations (ASTRO) Center, spent 198 days in space and said that it’s critical to know how a system is going to be used operationally at the time of design to maintain efficiency and ensure it will work.  

“The purpose of SpaceCRAFT is to make it possible to simulate, evaluate and optimize integrated system designs in an operational context before actually building any hardware,” Chamitoff said.

The engineers entering models into the SpaceCRAFT system will have to factor in many aspects of the environment, such as pressure, temperature, sun, humidity, wind  and so on, according to Chamitoff, in order to predict how a the real physical version of the model will perform in its given environment.

The team has been working on the project since spring of 2016, creating the basic architecture of the program to ensure that it accurately reflects reality.

“The project that we’re working on might be the cornerstone for the future,” said Neil McHenry, aerospace engineering graduate student. “If I’m going to be an astronaut in the future, all this stuff is directly helping me make sure wherever my home is — maybe Mars or something — is designed well and it’s safe.”

McHenry said he believes SpaceCRAFT and its software will bring the next surge in technology that will have a global impact on all disciplines, not just those headed to Mars.

“[SpaceCRAFT software will] enable everyone who wants to in the world to have a role, to contribute to the design of humanity’s future in space,” Chamitoff said. “People are thinking about this, and the ability for people to think and share their thoughts and collaborate wherever they are in the world — that’s what this is about.”

Chamitoff said the purpose of SpaceCRAFT is for people across the globe to contribute to designing the future.

“If all goes well and humanity survives all the problems we have on Earth today, we’re going to expand out into the solar system,” Chamitoff said. “How that transpires, and how we design that future, is something that we have a capability to simulate in a virtual universe before we actually do it, and figure out how to do it right.”

from Department of Space Exploration