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With less funding, PISCES to scale down plans

May 4, 2014 - 6:00am

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems will scale down some of its plans after lawmakers approved less funding than it requested, Executive Director Rob Kelso said.

The Hilo-based space research office will receive $900,000 in funding for the next fiscal year. It sought $1.7 million.

Among its requests, PISCES sought funding to acquire land for a research park and matching funds for a planetary sustainability research partnership with California. Neither was approved.

But the state will chip in $250,000 for an engineering assessment on a proposed laser optical communication station on Mauna Loa. PISCES is partnering with NASA on the project, estimated to be complete in 2020 if approved.

Kelso said PISCES, which operates under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, is assessing how to move forward with the amount of funding it will receive.

“The impact is going to be on the project work,” he said, adding he understands the state is limited on funds. “We won’t be able to add some additional staff that we wanted to.”

Currently, PISCES has a staff of nine.

“The good news is we won’t have to lay anybody off,” Kelso said.

The approved funding amount will likely impact growth of a robotic village, at least for now, he said.

The project is intended to demonstrate how rovers can extract regolith and turn it into fuel or other usable material.

“We had been talking with NASA about hardware — fuel cells, oxygen extraction equipment and other equipment from the space program — to integrate into the robotic village, to go into the brand new rover we have,” Kelso said. “To do that, we knew we needed some money for upgrades or modifications. … So, now we’re limited in what we can do on that.”

PISCES is also researching how to turn basalt rock into a building material with 3-D printers.

Kelso said he received less funding than hoped to get area high schools involved in a lunar project as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE. That project would involve the use of an electrostatic grid to keep lunar dust off equipment, which Kelso thinks students could help make.

“I’m still hopeful we can do a lunar surface flight experiment,” he said. “I’m still going back and assessing that.”

PISCES is also moving ahead on a demonstration project with Hawaii County. That will involve the construction of sidewalk pads built out of basaltic rock with similar methods that could be used one day on the moon or Mars.

The county Department of Research and Development is contributing $25,000, he said.

NASA is also considering starting a demonstration project on the Big Island using basalt rock for construction, Kelso said.

If approved, it would involve using robots to build a 10-meter launch pad in October, followed by a curved wall from a 3-D printer the next year, and a domed shelter the year after that.

“They heard about the work we are doing,” he said. “They came to us.”

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