Spotlight | Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems

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SAN FRANCISCO — When NASA’s Curiosity rover began using its on-board instrument to analyze the chemical composition of the rocks and soil on Mars, the results bore a striking resemblance to those obtained during previous tests of the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. It is that similarity between Hawaii’s volcanic soils and planetary surfaces that the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) is seeking to showcase as it forges agreements with government agencies and commercial firms interested in testing space-related technology. 

“The tops of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are the most Mars-like terrain found anywhere on this planet, and they are easily accessible,” said Henk Rogers, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who serves as vice chairman of PISCES’ board of directors. 

PISCES, an organization established in 2007 as part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, became part of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism in July 2012. Since then, the organization has forged partnerships with government agencies and private companies. During the years ahead, PISCES plans to expand its robotic-testing capabilities and pave the way for an aerospace research and development park to attract aerospace and high-technology organizations to the state, said Rob Kelso, PISCES executive director and former NASA space shuttle flight director.


PISCES at a Glance

Established: 2007 

Top Official: Rob Kelso, executive director

Employees: 5

Location: Hilo, Hawaii

Parent Organization: Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism


Mission: To offer high-quality analogue testing in support of national and international space missions.In recent months, PISCES signed memoranda of understanding to cooperate in research, development and testing with South Korea’s International Space Exploration Research Institute at Hanyang University, the University of Southern California’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, the International Society for Terrain-Vehicle Systems of Hanover, N.H., and the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales. In addition, PISCES signed agreements with Russ Ogi, a Hawaiian 3-D printing and design consultant, and the Hawaii TechWorks program of the East Hawaii Community Development Corp. 

In late June, PISCES signed a reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Under the five-year agreement, KSC will support PISCES’ efforts to develop technologies related to space exploration. “KSC’s support for PISCES may include technical services related to the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation Mission Operations, advanced architecture concepts, development for interconnecting PISCES communications systems with other partner sites, advance regolith manipulation techniques, and advanced habitation systems and technology development,” PISCES announced June 25. 

While the memoranda PISCES has signed with partners are focused on planetary surface exploration and habitat construction, the projects outlined also will benefit the people of Hawaii by providing education, training, business development and improved resource utilization, Kelso said. Technologies and processes designed to help space agencies use the Moon’s volcanic rock to create a type of concrete, for example, could offer significant benefits to Hawaii, a state that imports the cement and asphalt it needs to produce concrete. Hawaiian government officials are eager to use local basalt to provide an alternative to imported materials, Kelso said.

Lunar Stand-in 

PISCES’ test facilities have attracted interest from teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that offers $30 million in prizes for privately funded robotic Moon missions that succeed in landing safely, sending a robot 500 meters and transmitting data, images and video to Earth by the end of 2015. In addition, PISCES is likely to work with many of the companies that have announced plans to identify and extract the natural resources of the Moon, planetary surfaces and asteroids, Kelso said. 

With its remote location and volcanic terrain, the PISCES test site can be used to examine the performance of rovers, drills and communication systems, Kelso said. To make testing more realistic, PISCES plans to equip its test site with a communications system capable of introducing the type of delays mission officials will experience when trying to communicate with robotic vehicles or instruments located on the Moon, planetary surfaces or asteroids, Kelso said.

The state of Hawaii allocated $2.34 million for PISCES during the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2012. The bulk of that funding, $1.84 million, was earmarked for capital improvement with the remaining $500,000 set aside for operations. For the fiscal year that began on July 1, 2013, PISCES is scheduled to receive $800,000 for operations, Kelso said. 

PISCES plans to spend $275,000 of its capital improvement funding to conduct studies leading to the selection of a site for a new facility. The facility will include offices for the organization’s staff, workshops and a high bay for testing and checkout of space-related hardware and equipment. Remaining funds will be used to cover future construction costs, Kelso said.

During the next few years, PISCES officials plan to work with state officials to establish a research park. “Hawaii is looking to become a leader in research, development and space exploration,” said state Sen. Will Espero. Espero, one of the lawmakers who introduced legislation to transfer PISCES from the state’s university system to the state agency, said he expects PISCES to lead the way in advocating and lobbying on behalf of the research park.

“Research and development are key components of space exploration,” Espero said by email. “Areas like alternative energy, food sustainability, robotics, habitat design and construction, physical endurance, and psychological testing are examples of what a lunar research park could include.”