Friday, July 31, 2015

2015-07-31: Autonomy Incubator Helps Engineer Extraterrestrial Mouse Habitat

Jeremy Lim introduces the freshly crafted MICEHAB model.

One of NASA Langley's most intriguing summer projects will finally get a demo next week during Autonomy Incubator intern Jeremy Lim's exit presentation.  Jeremy Lim, a rising junior at Penn State University, has spent his summer working with the Multigenerational Independent Colony for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Autonomy, and Behavioral Health (MICEHAB) team, with the goal of integrating autonomy into the robotically-monitored mice habitats.

"The idea is to launch a colony of mice into orbit and observe how they adapt and change with low gravity," Jeremy said. The MICEHAB project is still in its nascent stages, but the plan as it stands right now is to have the MICEHAB capsule in lunar orbit while spinning around a satellite, to which it will be tethered. The combination of the Moon's gravity and the centrifugal force generated from the spinning would mean that the mice inside the capsule would experience about one third of the Earth's gravity.

How the mice fare in space will provide important data for how human bodies would change and react during long space missions, like the journey to Mars.

"Will the younger mice have lower bone density? What about the mice born in low gravity?" he said. However, gravity isn't the only factor that could impact health in space: "The capsule will be radiation shielded, but we still won't have the benefit of Earth's atmosphere," he said.

Jeremy's portion of the project had him working with the hardware aboard MICEHAB, including the robotic arm that will feed the mice and clean their cages in orbit. He used the AI's AEON framework to write his program, a high-level control program designed to let MICEHAB function without human intervention for months, even years at a time.  When little mouse lives are at stake, the autonomous mechanisms keeping them alive need to work well and work every time.

"For long periods of time, it'll have to operate completely independently,"he said. "[My program tells the robot arm] 'Okay, do this task after that task,' or 'do that task because it's this time.'"

Jeremy slots a mouse cage into its shelf.

The robot arm can pull out a cage and lift its lid for cleaning and feeding.

A little demo mouse with a little demo house.

Although his time working on MICEHAB is quickly drawing to an end, Jeremy remains excited about the project's potential. He figures that if a team of students can put this much of it together in just ten weeks, then it should be a testament to how possible a MICEHAB launch could be with a team of NASA engineers working on it.

"We're out here to say, 'This is plausible and and we can do it.'" he said.

For his part, however, Jeremy is pleased with how the summer's efforts have coalesced.

"It is kind of gratifying to see  everything almost together," he said. "We're in the home stretch."

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