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ABB’s leading role in the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions means we have some valuable contributions to make in the field of space exploration

In the course of ABB’s participation in the CERAWeek conference in Houston this week, we had an opportunity to spotlight some of the interesting work that our company carries out in the field of space exploration. ABB and space exploration aren’t closely associated in many people’s minds, but the truth is that the International Space Station and other modern space projects make use of some very sophisticated power generation systems and incorporate robotics on a growing scale. ABB’s leading role in the ongoing Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions means we have some valuable contributions to make in this field.

We were fortunate to be able to bring an interesting and appropriate guest speaker to the conference, to offer his own insights about the future of space travel and the possibility of building a colony on Mars. Capt. Mike Foreman is a former mission specialist in NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Foreman, who came to NASA after a distinguished career as a Navy test pilot, served as an astronaut on the Space Shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis on flights to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2009.

Mike pointed out that reliable access to power plays a critical, if unheralded, role in any space journey. “As astronauts, we’re energy consumers,” he said. “We just plug in our equipment and expect it to work.” But it’s up to the scientists and engineers to make sure that it does work.

A high level of energy-efficiency is central to any space mission. The ISS and other space platforms contain sophisticated electric microgrids, typically relying on solar power and battery storage. The task of providing energy to a larger installation – like a colony on Mars, for example – will pose even bigger challenges … of a kind that ABB is uniquely well equipped to take on.

At our CERAWeek exhibition, we have put on display a virtual-reality conceptual rendering of a future Mars base. A number of space agencies have put forward proposals for sending humans to Mars in the not-too-distant future, and our VR presentation gave attendees at the conference a chance to experience a visit to the red planet themselves. The virtual visitors to Mars get to see a colony under construction – with ABB robots assembling prefabricated modules and an EV charging station used to power surface vehicles.

Captain Foreman agreed that robots would have a major role to play in making any base on Mars a reality. “Space travel is inherently dangerous, and NASA has an amazing safety culture. Every single person in the room is asked to contribute to any discussion of safety issues. Mars is much further away from the earth than the ISS, so communications are a lot slower, and people there won’t have immediate support from their colleagues on earth the way we did on the space station. These are all reasons why robots will be used both to prepare for the arrival of people on Mars and to carry out dangerous jobs whenever possible in any colony we build there.”

ABB also had representatives on hand from its measurement and analytics research team in Quebec to discuss some of the other ways in which ABB is contributing to space exploration. These include the design and production of sensitive spectrometers that can be used in satellites to carry out weather forecasting and environmental monitoring – for earth or any other planet. ABB’s team in Quebec City has worked in the past on instrumentation projects with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. James Veilleux, an ABB systems engineer based in Quebec, is currently being considered for a spot as an astronaut in the Canadian program. So ABB may soon be sending not just its equipment but even one of its own experts into space.

This is just another fascinating example of how we are writing the future.

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