PISCES space program gains synergy with move back to UH Hilo

PISCES mission has shifted since moving back to UH Hilo: “Our goal, is to advance education along with workforce development and technology research,” says executive director Christian Andersen.

Image of Burt Lum at Hawaiʻi Public Radio with an inset of a photo of Christian Andersen.
At left is Hawaiʻi Public Radio’s Burt Lum on his Bytemarks Cafe podcast interviewing PISCES executive director Christian Andersen. (Photo: Bytemarks Cafe)

By Susan Enright.

The executive director who also serves as the director of research at the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, once again housed at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, says PISCES fits in well at the university as staff focus on new goals to advance higher education along with workforce development. PISCES moved from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBED) to UH Hilo last year.

Christian Andersen, who has been with PISCES since 2008 first as program manager while actively involved in research, says the agency was first formed as a State of Hawaiʻi space program.

PISCES and UH Hilo logos. PISCES with mountains and moons. And UH Hilo with University of Hawaii in red.Founded in 2007, PISCES researches and develops space exploration technologies with dual-use applications for Earth and space. The program also facilitates planetary surface testing at high-fidelity planetary analog sites, and collaborates with the international community of aerospace, robotics, and technology to advance space exploration.

At its founding, PISCES was affiliated with UH Hilo, then later moved to DBED. “We were there for a number of years, and then in 2021, there were a number of changes in the state and it was decided it made a lot of sense for us to move from DBED and be attached to the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo,” says Andersen in a recent interview with Hawaiʻi Public Radio’s Burt Lum on his Bytemarks Cafe podcast.

Andersen says the initial mission of PISCES was focused on the commercialization side, which makes sense being located at DBED. But that mission has shifted since moving back to UH Hilo.

“As of our move to the university, which really was set up in May of last year, we were established in the College of Natural and Health Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo,” Andersen explains. “In a nutshell, I’d say our purpose, our goal, is to advance education and higher education along with workforce development and technology research.”

Space technology research with cultural perspectives

While one of PISCES main goals is to educate, inspire, and offer unique opportunities to students in STEM-related fields — this goal will strengthen with the program’s new home as it integrates applied research and aerospace partnerships into UH Hilo curricula — one of the main focuses is on space technology research.

For example, there are interesting research projects underway that develop novel in-situ resource utilization technologies, commonly called ISRU, that can help sustain life on the Moon and Mars — and help make life on Earth more sustainable. These projects bring students opportunities for hands-on experience in the field, including the use of culturally significant perspectives on travel. This fits in well with PISCES support of diversity and inclusion as it works to bring greater equity to the international space community.

Andersen says most staff at PISCES are Native Hawaiian, many with backgrounds in Polynesian voyaging. “You don’t take everything with you [on a sea voyage], you take the tools you’re going to need, the seeds, the roots you’re going to need, and you go and make a new life using those tools. That’s become a very huge focus within NASA and the space community within the last couple of years.”

Heather Kaluna pictured.
Heather Kaluna

Andersen is currently working with Heather Kaluna, UH Hilo associate professor of physics and astronomy with Native Hawaiian heritage, on a culturally-based NASA MINDS project — NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Innovative New Designs for Space (INDS).

NASA MINDS is a multi-semester undergraduate level challenge that provides funds to student and faculty teams from Minority Serving Institutions to design and build prototypes for technologies needed in support of the Artemis mission, a NASA-led program aiming to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

“We wanted to look at creating a controlled growth chamber for space application, specifically with a focus on crops like kalo,” Andersen says. Five students have started work on the project.

A lot of synergy since moving back to UH Hilo

In addition to working with physics and astronomy students, PISCES is also creating projects with students in geology, computer science, and even marine science, “which people don’t think of when they think of space research,” says Andersen.

Andersen says there has been a lot of synergy since moving to UH Hilo.

“For example, we have the Helelani (Heavenly Travels) rover, that’s a large rover for testing various payloads,” he explains. “Just this year we had a senior level computer science class here at UH Hilo, [they] documented the software, started to update the software. We hope to continue that work in the coming semester having them integrate 360 degree cameras on the rover.”

Listen to the full podcast at Bytemarks Cafe.

Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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