Illustration of the interior of a deep space habitat by NASA.

NASA wants to build homes on Mars, and they’ve found their architects in Pittsburgh.

Next week, Carnegie Mellon University officially join a five-year, $15 million, multi-university initiative aimed at developing long-term research outposts in space.

The Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME) program will include experts from the CMU alongside teams at other elite research institutions, including the University of California, Davis and Howard University.

The program kicks off with a two-day conference at UC Davis on October 3.

Researchers will lay the groundwork for permanent research stations on the surfaces of the moon and Mars. By designing those research stations to maintain themselves with help from artificial intelligence, CMU can help researchers focus on the work they’re sent to space to do.

“When considering deep space exploration, humans will need a lot more assistance from their machines because the number of things they need to think about will be much larger,” wrote Mario Bergés, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at CMU, in a statement to NEXTpittsburgh. “If we ask that humans monitor all the systems and make every decision inside the habitat, they will not have the time to do the science that they were sent into space to do.”

Bergés and his team are already studying how artificial intelligence systems could be applied to maintaining bases and habitats that may have to sustain themselves for years between human missions.

These early settlements, on Mars or elsewhere, will be independent structures optimized for each particular environment. The buildings’ AI systems will have to make critical decisions using only readings coming from in and around the base itself, without the benefit of a network of fellow smart structures.

“We have machines that learn by themselves if you give them enough data,” explained Bergés in a press release about the project. “But we don’t have a lot of machines that can reason by using existing engineering knowledge.”

Other program heads include Burcu Akinci, a Civil and Environmental Engineering professor and information modeling expert at CMU, and Stephen Smith and Artur Dubrawski from the university’s Robotics Institute, who will lead research on AI and robotics systems.

The program is just one part of NASA’s Space Technology Research Institutes initiative, which funds sustained, long-term research at universities across the nation.

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.