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Interplanetary Initiative's pilot project program creates runway for real-world impact

ASU initiative leverages proven method to accelerate speed, impact of research

People in a classroom talking.

Interplanetary Initiative pilot projects arise from immersive workshops using the "big questions" teaming method. During these workshops, teams are forged, project ideas are born and the path to secure annual seed funding from the initiative is paved. Photo courtesy the Interplanetary Initiative

November 27, 2023

The Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University unites academia, industry and government to launch space research projects with tangible real-world impact. These collaborative efforts have given rise to a series of pilot projects, which engage broadly across the ASU ecosystem and extend globally for maximum impact. 

The projects arise from immersive workshops using the "big questions" teaming method. The method is designed to drive cross-sector innovation, using structures and incentives that support teams, goals and outcomes. During these workshops, teams are forged, project ideas are born and the path to secure annual seed funding from the initiative is paved. 

While pilot projects originate at ASU, their mission is to advance progress that benefits the broader space ecosystem. Featured here are four interplanetary pilot projects across the life cycle continuum.  

Project Spotlights

Big Question: How can AI and robots work together with humans for space exploration?
Phase: Ideation
Co-leads: Barbara Marusiak, senior director, clinical research management and regulatory science, Edson College; Hiro Ono, principal investigator, EELS Project, and group supervisor, Robotic Mobility Group, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Solution: A technology development roadmap for AI/robot and human augmentation in space 

Creating a roadmap for successful AI/robot and human technology for space involves careful planning and integration of various technologies. The objective is to leverage artificial intelligence, robotics and human capabilities to advance space exploration and ensure successful missions.

Big Question: How does space exploration intersect with sustainable development goals?
Phase: Pilot
Eric Stribling, assistant teaching professor, Interplanetary Initiative, Arizona State University
Solution: SpaceHACK for Sustainability (S4S)

Governments heavily depend on Earth observation (EO) satellite data to track advancements toward numerous U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In fact, EO data is integral to fulfilling nearly half of the U.N.'s targets and indicators. With access to extensive satellite data reserves, ASU can pave the way for pioneering solutions that address social and environmental challenges in alignment with the SDGs. 

S4S leverages these assets to help students across the university and beyond contribute to these goals while acquiring essential skills tailored for future careers in Earth observation and satellite data. 

Last year, over two days, S4S engaged 138 participants in person and virtually from over seven countries, including the United States, Ecuador, Brazil, Spain, Italy, India and South Korea. Outcomes included integrating S4S into an upper-level humanities course at ASU titled “Diplomacy Lab: Latin America” and the creation of a PhD research position at the University of Nepal to continue research sparked by the track focused on depleting aquifers in Nepal.

In its second year of seed funding, a major goal of the project is to implement S4S at other universities. La Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL) in Ecuador is poised to host a concurrent event on their campus. Furthermore, joining the team this year are two student interns from the NASA Space Grant program at ASU.

Interplanetary Initiative pilot projects arise from immersive workshops using the "big questions" teaming method, which is designed to drive cross-sector innovation, using structures and incentives that support teams, goals and outcomes. Photo courtesy the Interplanetary Initiative


Big Question: How can we sustain healthy human communities in space?
Phase: Validate
Lead: Lance Gharavi, professor, School of Music, Dance and Theatre, Arizona State University
Solution: Port of Mars

Through gameplay, Port of Mars is researching how people can work together to manage shared resources, achieve common goals, and take collective action under conditions of high uncertainty and risk, like those in space. In this simulation game, players assume the roles of early Martian settlers, such as an entrepreneur, a politician or a researcher. They need to choose between investing in the shared infrastructure or individual accomplishments to earn points to win the game. Players’ actions are meticulously tracked and analyzed by the project team, who seek to understand what behaviors tend to lead to success and failure in the game, with the ultimate goal of using this information to develop strategies for future human space communities.

This card-game-turned-video-game uncovers the intricacies of cooperation in challenging environments, offering valuable lessons applicable to a range of scenarios with high uncertainty and risk — from space exploration to environments affected by climate change. 

A commercial version of the card game will be released in the upcoming months, and the research continues with support from the National Science Foundation. 

Big Question: What balance of mechanical and biological systems will be required to sustain human life in an off-world settlement?
Phase: Scale
Lead: Kai Staats, research director of SAM, Biosphere 2, University of Arizona
ASU collaborators: Danny Jacobs, assistant professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration, and associate director, Interplanetary Initiative; Judd Bowman, professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration
Solution: Scalable Interactive Model of an Off-World Community (SIMOC)

It would take a careful balance of food rations, air and water recycling, greenhouse development, plant cultivation, agriculture and solar energy production to keep humans alive on the moon or Mars.

SIMOC is an interactive simulator that allows users to design off-world habitats using data from plant physiology studies and human factors research. SIMOC's primary purpose is to aid scientists in designing and testing life support systems for extended space missions. By combining data from mechanical and plant-based systems, it simulates a closed ecosystem, allowing contributors from citizen science to academic and professional researchers that evaluate various scenarios for sustaining human life. 

This tool is not only a place to experiment and test hypotheses; it also serves as an educational resource for students and the public. Recognized for its educational value, SIMOC has been funded by the National Geographic Society since 2020. 

Furthering its commitment to broad impact, SIMOC has transitioned into an open-source platform, allowing anyone interested worldwide to install the software to their system locally and edit or build upon the groundwork laid by the team. This access can be used as a resource for educational institutions across the globe to download and implement SIMOC for localized classroom engagement alongside relevant curriculum.

In its latest iteration, the simulation is a physical space habitat analog that also includes a simulation of the original two Biosphere 2 missions that took place in 1991 and 1994. With a $1.8 million funding allocation from the state of Arizona, the research continues as a high-fidelity, hermetically sealed and pressurized habitat and research station constructed adjacent to the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2.

Many opportunities for collaboration

ASU's Interplanetary Initiative is driving a future in space that is both inclusive and sustainable through innovative teaming processes and cross-sector research. These processes break down disciplinary silos, activate new networks and create the multiplier effect needed to make a real-world impact.

To learn more, explore the initiative's pilot project portfolio or subscribe to its newsletter. To get involved, contact

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