NASA Charts AI, Robotics, 3D Printing as Path for Mars Sustainability

NASA scientist explains the critical role of emerging tech for self-sustaining human colonies on Mars at AI Summit London

Ben Wodecki, Jr. Editor

June 13, 2024

3 Min Read
Christyl Johnson, deputy director for technology and research investments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on stage at the AI Summit London.
Ben Wodecki

Christyl Johnson, deputy director for technology and research investments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, detailed how AI, robotics and 3D printing will be essential for sustaining human life on Mars. Speaking at AI Summit London, Johnson urged the audience to envision the year 2100 and the technological advancements that could make living on the Red Planet possible.

“In 2100, we will be having cities on other planetary bodies in order for us to do that,” Johnson said. “We've got to really master things like producing oxygen, water and energy on a grand scale. We're going to have to make sure that we are mastering the AI capabilities for that so we can do real-time data analysis and systems optimization for plant maintenance and predictive maintenance. We've got to get right here first on Earth, and then we'll be able to take that to other planetary bodies.”

Mars is inhospitable to humans, but NASA wants to send a manned mission to the planet sometime in the next decade – with plans to set up permanent habitats on the Red Planet.

Space agencies have to overcome immense challenges to make that dream a reality: Vehicles capable of navigating rocky terrain, equipment suitable for use in lower gravity environments and bitterly cold temperatures.

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Among the technologies Johnson said future Mars inhabitants could expect are swarms of smart robots equipped with computer vision cameras to explore lava tubes for ice that can be purified into drinking water. She said camera feeds could then be sent back to Earth to show in classrooms, with the robots smart enough to know when to recharge their batteries.

“Being able to have those swarms to be able to talk to each other and get commands from us is going to be absolutely critical,” Johnson said.

Johnson said traditional technologies on Earth can’t be sent to Mars, so humanity will have to design new innovative technologies to help make life sustainable on the planet.

For example, she highlighted the potential of 3D printing to build habitats, with robots transporting the materials to fuel the printers continuously. She also mentioned the use of individual digital twins of human bodies to perform predictive and precise medicine.

Johnson also spoke about handheld devices that would warn humans on the planet’s surface of incoming solar flares. She said a future AI and machine learning system could ingest and analyze NASA’s trove of data on the Sun to potentially predict coronal mass ejections or solar flares.

“We got decades of information on the Sun that's just sitting there,” she said. “We have to make sure that we are able to mine those datasets to understand when there's a coronal mass ejection, and then tell those people on the surface ‘You had x amount of time to get to the safest location.’”

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NASA is already using AI across several applications, including generative systems to aid in designing materials for future spacecraft and AI models to obtain insights from Earth data gathered from satellites in partnership with IBM.

But Johnson said the space agency is looking for what she described as non-traditional to help it achieve its Mars goal.

Having already worked to design drag-resistant swimwear for Speedos and a smart pill for monitoring core body temperatures, Johnson said NASA is on the lookout for more support to help overcome its intergalactic challenges.

“People who have very common life experiences, very common, schooling experiences, etc., etc. We are shaped by the life experiences that we have. If you get people who are totally outside of your area, that when you have them looking at your problem and say, ‘Well, why are you looking at that that way? Why don't you just do this?’ That's when you come up with real revolutionary changes.”

About the Author(s)

Ben Wodecki

Jr. Editor

Ben Wodecki is the Jr. Editor of AI Business, covering a wide range of AI content. Ben joined the team in March 2021 as assistant editor and was promoted to Jr. Editor. He has written for The New Statesman, Intellectual Property Magazine, and The Telegraph India, among others. He holds an MSc in Digital Journalism from Middlesex University.

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