Space: The Final (SmartGrid) Frontier

Humans are instinctive explorers: our earliest ancestors were nomads, travelling across now-submerged land bridges and continents in search of food and shelter. Although we like to think we’ve evolved, humans really haven’t changed much in that regard: first we explored Earth, now we’ve moved on to the stars.

Although wanderlust is a beautiful and romantic concept, the technical challenges facing deep space exploration are complex. One maddening challenge is power: not only how do you power a spaceship on a journey that may last for months or years, but how do you ensure consistent power, with zero gaps or outages? After all, a 20-minute outage is no big deal in Dallas or Atlanta. It becomes a bit more of an issue when you’re 140 million miles from Earth, and wholly dependent on an uninterrupted supply of electricity for, say, air. Scientists at NASA and Battelle recently identified a potential solution – from an unexpected source.

You may have heard of Holomorphic Embedding Load-Flow Method (HELM) technology. Developed by Elequant, a SmartGrid management software developer, in partnership with Battelle, HELM was originally designed to diagnose SmartGrid errors and issues here on Earth. Battelle reasoned that it might also be useful in diagnosing and automatically correcting issues with the DC microgrid systems currently in use on spacecraft. Large-load grid systems that can identify and correct issues automatically may sound futuristic, but they’re real – and necessary for space exploration.

One of the main issues confounding the scientists trying to take manned Mars missions from science fiction to reality is “telecommunication latency,” or time lag. Transmissions from Mars are delayed by around 45 minutes, making non-autonomous control of the power systems onboard impossible.

This leaves two solutions: ensuring that at least one member of the crew is an electrical systems expert, or developing electrical systems that can diagnose and fix themselves. Deep space travel is one of the riskiest endeavors in human history, and it’s all about efficiency. Minimizing the number of human crew members is not only more efficient, but also means putting one less life at risk.

Battelle and Elequant worked together on a now-completed contract with NASA’s Glenn Research Center, submitting their final report on HELM’s potential use in space exploration in July. The result is a design for an “intelligent, fault-tolerant, autonomous power control and distribution system” that “mathematically guarantees stable operation of the [space ship’s] power system” and, should an electrical fault occur, charts a solution from power failure to recovery, freeing astronauts to focus on other crucial tasks.

Who knew that the same math that keeps the lights on here Earth could also be used to keep astronauts powered up on Mars? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.