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3D Printing the Soul and Other Ideas From the Final Frontier — Q&A with Adam Steltzner of NASA

The Industrial Internet faces perhaps it’s biggest challenge in space — though also some of the greatest opportunities for breakthroughs in machine-to-machine communication and Big Data analytics.

The explosion of data being emitted from everything from hospital monitors to deep-sea oil wells to jet engines is demanding increasingly robust Big Data analytical tools. But perhaps the greatest test for collecting and analyzing data is at the “final frontier,” with the challenges of beaming back information and images from space expeditions.

Just ask Adam Steltzner, lead landing engineer of NASA’s Curiosity rover mission, which captivated the public with images of the Mars landing in 2012. Images from the Curiosity often take days to travel the 140 million-mile distance to earth.

“In the exploration of space, we find particular constraints on machine-to-machine communication because of distance and time of flight of light-speed communications,” says Steltzner, a fellow at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, ahead of his panel discussion on the possibilities presented by the Industrial Internet at the annual Minds + Machines event.

Space exploration offers a tremendous opportunity to discover new ways of sharing and analyzing data, according to Steltzner. “Some Big Data techniques will likely be key in forming a deeper understanding of our world,” he says in an interview, in which he also discusses the challenges of data privacy and how the U.S. can stay competitive in today’s global innovation economy:

GE Reports: What do you see as the potential for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication — whether in space exploration or in more terrestrial pursuits?

Adam Steltzner: In the exploration of space, we find particular constraints on machine-to-machine communication because of distance and time of flight of light-speed communications. In fact, we design our systems with the assumption of they will function in the absence of communication — because communication can be so potentially unreliable, intermittent and subject to even days of transport lag.

The opportunity for M2M communication comes in the notion of constellations, or swarms of spacecraft that use communication to accomplish their science measurements en mass. We have flown such missions — including Grace and Grail — which use specific M2M communication and measurement to accomplish their goals using highly specialized communication techniques.

GER: One of the hallmarks of the Curiosity landing on Mars was the sheer magnitude of imagery and other data that was being beamed back to earth every second. What lessons were learned from having to process and analyze so much data?

AS: Bandwidth limitations! We receive data from Curiosity, primarily, through links with orbiting spacecraft around Mars beamed to one or more of three specialized radio antennae sites used for tracking and communication around the world, known as the Deep Space Network. We are frequently limited by our transition capability, and at times it can take days to get all of our data down. For Curiosity and our other rover missions, we do things like use thumbnails and only transmit images that appear worthy of the bandwidth.

As we plan our next major roving expedition to Mars, we have been continuously looking for ways to reduce the transmitted data by attempting to develop methods of turning that data into more concentrated information prior to transmission. An example that we are considering would be potential use of digital elevation and albedo maps rather than some sets of images.

GER: What do you see as the most promising breakthroughs to come in the era of Big Data and the Industrial Internet?

AS: Earth science data is being accumulated at a staggering rate. I think that there are great opportunities for understanding our planet through the synthesis of this data. Some Big Data techniques will likely be key in forming a deeper understanding of our world. Questions from weather and climate, water sequestration and aquifer replenishment will need the synthesis of broad and perhaps diverse sets of data.

I am particularly excited about the prospect for fusion of diverse data sets such as ground base distributed measurements and satellite data.

GER: NASA is a big proponent of open government. How do you ensure that open data policies can maximize opportunities while protecting privacy and security?

AS: Carefully.

GER: The private sector is becoming a bigger player in the space industry. What’s the potential for public-private partnerships for leveraging limited government resources?

AS: Private industry is breathing life and new competitive challenge into the civil space arena. I love it. I think there are opportunities for collaboration in ventures as near as Earth Science and as far-ranging in putting a human footprint on the surface of Mars.

GER: NASA has always been on the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing techniques. What do you see as the key for the U.S. to maintain its leadership in that area?

AS: Really, we have to keep making things. Building not only ideas, but stuff. Frequently it is the challenge of exploration — whether it be into a new market, or onto a far-off planet — that pushes us to develop new techniques of building things. I think that there are fantastic opportunities in the realm of additive manufacturing (3D printing) for producing engineering hardware that would otherwise not be manufacturable. It is an exciting time.

GER: You’ve mentioned the concept of using a sort of 3D printing of people to accomplish the mission of visiting distant planets. What kind of technological and other challenges would we need to overcome to be able to print humans?

AS: Well travel through space to almost all of our universe involves distances too great for me to imagine human traveling, or at least traveling as we think of it today.

George Church and his colleagues play with the idea of using humanity out of our localized region of space using more abstract forms of human travel. Essentially, transmitting the information of what we are at the speed of light or near it — either as code in ones and zeros, or perhaps encoded into the genes of other simple organisms.  In both these ideas, humans are re-assembled at some destination by a machine (additive manufacturing) or by a yet to be understood process of genetically guided evolution.

This is all pretty far out stuff they are playing with. Additive manufacturing of biological elements is still a great challenge, DNA really does it best.

The hardest part of 3D printing a human might be printing the soul….

(Top GIF: Video courtesy of NASA)


Steltzner headshotAdam Steltzner is a Fellow at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Chief Engineer of Mars2020.





All views expressed are those of the author.

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