NASA asks private companies to share how they might supply the Lunar Gateway

NASA’s stated goal of sending the first woman ever, and the first man since the Apollo program, to the Moon involves setting up a new space station that will orbit the Moon, which is supposed to begin being built by the end of 2022, per current timelines. Today, the U.S. space agency issued an open call for industry feedback and insight on how American companies might help supply said station.

Like the ISS, the forthcoming “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” (aka the LOP-G, but much more commonly simply referred to as “The Gateway”) will need regular resupply runs and delivery of cargo — both for the many stages of its build, which are projected to span at least six years to get to its target state of completion. NASA is also considering the possibility that private companies could provide transportation for parts of its lunar landing and, eventually, exploration and base building on the Moon.

NASA’s move today is to release a draft request for proposals, which means that at this stage, it’s not actually looking for providers to submit formal bids — this is the step before that happens, when it’s more informally looking for guidance from industry on what kinds of cargo delivery methods they might even be able to provide ahead of looking to lock in any official contract winners for ongoing business.

To dive deeper into what it’s after and field questions from industry, NASA is hosting a Q&A on June 26, and comments are due on July 10. The more formal actual RFP will happen later this summer, the agency expects, and ultimately, the contract award for this admittedly big job could be as high as $7 billion.

NASA previously awarded private official “Commercial Resupply Services” for the ISS, which is a similar type of business but … Read the rest

Price tag to return to the Moon could be $30 billion

NASA’s ambitious plan to return to the moon may cost as much as $30 billion over the next five years, the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, indicated in an interview this week. This is only a ballpark figure, but it’s the first all-inclusive one we’ve seen and, despite being a large amount of money, is lower than some might have guessed.

Bridenstine floated the figure in an interview with CNN, suggesting that the agency would need somewhere between $20 billion and $30 billion for the purpose of returning to the surface of the Moon. Anything beyond that, such as fleshing out the Lunar Gateway or establishing a persistent presence, would incur additional costs.

To put this figure in perspective, NASA’s annual budget is about $20 billion, very little compared to many other agencies and budget items in the federal government. The speculated additional costs would average $4-6 billion per year, though spending may not be so consistent. NASA only asked for an additional $1.6 billion for the upcoming year, for instance.

The idea that this return to the Moon could cost the same in 2019 dollars as Apollo cost in 1960s dollars (about $30 billion) may be surprising to some. But of course we are not inventing crewed interplanetary travel from scratch this time around. Billions have already been invested in the technologies and infrastructure underpinning the Artemis mission, both flight-proven and recently developed.

In addition to that, Bridenstine is likely counting on the cost savings NASA will see by partnering with commercial aerospace concerns far more extensively than in previous missions of this scale. Cost-sharing, co-development and use of commercial services rather than internal ones will likely save billions.

A secondary goal, Bridenstine told CNN, was “to make sure that … Read the rest

Facebook is creating photorealistic homes for AIs to work and learn in

If AI-powered robots are ever going to help us out around the house, they’re going to need a lot of experience navigating human environments. Simulators, virtual worlds that look and behave just like real life, are the best place for them to learn, and Facebook has created one of the most advanced such systems yet.

Called Habitat, Facebook’s new, open-source simulator was briefly mentioned some months ago but today received the full expository treatment, to accompany a paper on the system being presented at CVPR.

Teaching a robot to navigate a realistic world and accomplish simple tasks is a process that takes a considerable amount of time, so doing it in a physical space with an actual robot is impractical. It might take hundreds of hours, even years of real time, to learn over many repetitions how best to get from one place to another, or how to grip and pull a drawer.

Instead, the robot’s AI can be placed in a virtual environment that approximates the real one, and the basics can be hashed out as fast as the computer can run the calculations that govern that 3D world. That means you can achieve hundreds or thousands of hours of training in just a few minutes of intense computing time.

Habitat is not itself a virtual world, but rather a platform on which such simulated environments can run. It is compatible with several existing systems and environments (SUNCG, MatterPort3D, Gibson and others), and is optimized for efficiency so researchers can run it at hundreds of times real-world speeds.

But Facebook also wanted to advance the state of the art in virtual worlds, and so created Replica, a database for Habitat that includes a number of photorealistic rooms organized into a whole house: a … Read the rest

Pioneering private space explorer Anousheh Ansari welcomes ISS commercialization

Xprize CEO and Prodea founder Anousheh Ansari dreamed of being an astronaut as a child growing up in Iran, but, understandably, most people around her were skeptical about her ambitions. Yet in 2006, she made that dream come true when she became the first woman to visit the International Space Station as a privately funded citizen (as well as the first Iranian citizen and the first Muslim woman), traveling aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket as a trained and paying guest of the Russian Space Agency.

At the time, NASA wasn’t thrilled about the idea and definitely did not want Ansari to pay a visit. Thirteen years later, the U.S. space agency announced earlier this week that the ISS is officially “open for business,” and revealed that pricing for a night’s stay will be around $35,000 per person (that’s just lodging — you still have to figure out your own transportation). At a Creative Destruction Lab event in Toronto this week, I spoke to Ansari about what this milestone announcement means for commercial space interests, and her perspective on the field and opportunity for space-focused startups in general.

“Actually, I wish I had my laptop to I could show a slide from probably six, seven years ago, maybe even longer, which I used that said ‘ISS for rent. It’s coming true! I’m telling you, I can predict the future,” Ansari joked. “But I think it makes so much sense.”

There are a number of reasons the situation has changed regarding how NASA views commercial and private interest in visiting and using the space station. Not least of which is that the station has now aged beyond its original mission parameters, and is definitely nearing its true functional end of life.

“The space station is […] already on extended life right … Read the rest

MIT develops a better way for robots to predict human movement

People and robots working together has tremendous potential for factory and construction site settings, but robots are also potentially incredibly dangerous to people, especially when they’re large and powerful, which is typically the case for industrial robots.

There are plenty of efforts to make “corobotics” a reality, including production machines like the YuMi produced by German robotics giant ABB . But a new algorithm created by MIT researchers could help make humans and robots working together even safer.

Researchers working with automaker BMW and observing their current product workflow noticed that the robots were overly cautious when it came to watching out for the humans in the plant — they’d lose lots of potentially productive time waiting for people to cross their paths long before there was any chance of the people actually doing that.

They’ve now developed a solution that greatly improves the ability of robots to anticipate the trajectory of humans as they move — allowing robots that typically freeze in the face of anything even vaguely resembling a person walking in their path to continue to operate and move around the flow of human foot traffic.

Researchers managed this by eschewing the usual practice of borrowing from how music and speech processing works for algorithmic prediction, which are much better when it comes to predicting predictable paths of travel, and instead came up with a “partial trajectory” method that references real-time trajectory data with a large library of reference trajectories gathered before.

This is a much better way of anticipating human movement, which is very rarely consistent and involves a lot of stops and starts, even in a factory worker performing the same action repeatedly over thousands of instances.

This could have potential consumer applications too — researchers note that human movement even in the home would … Read the rest