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©2018 Reaching Space Science. 

The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Space Exploration

October 3, 2018

Artificial intelligence (AI) involves machines, programs and computers that can think, learn and make decisions on their own. This form of intelligence is already integrated into our everyday lives from music services that recommend new music based on our interests to new self-driving cars.


AI has seen a growing interest in many different sectors and it is likewise making its way into the space industry. We have already been using this decision-making form of intelligence with the rovers that are currently roaming the surface of Mars. Because it takes radio waves up to 22 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, these robots must make some decisions without commands from mission control. Furthermore, mission controllers on Earth can only send and receive data or commands with the proper antennas during their allotted time (which may only be ten minutes per day due to all of the other space missions that require these antennas for communications too). To make their own decisions, the rovers use a driving system that uses AI to detect obstacles that it can avoid and to determine the best route for travel. For example, the NASA Curiosity rover can image its surroundings to plan a path to a particular feature (such as a rock) up to 50 meters away, while avoiding large obstacles along the way.


 NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover (NASA, 2012)


Closer to home, the capsules being designed to bring astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station by Boeing and SpaceX will be relying on smart technology that is self-directed from launch to connection with the station. This also means future astronauts will spend less time training to use the vehicles their flying and more time on being able to notice if the vehicle is not doing what it is supposed to do. If a problem like this is noticed, the astronauts could then work with the ground crew to fix the problem and take control manually.


AI will continue to be a valuable tool for combing through large amounts of information. For example, it is being considered as a way to find life on new planets. AI networks can find patterns that humans may not be able to spot themselves to select planets that have the right conditions to support life for us to explore. Because space is so big, it contains countless stars and planets that can be quicker analysed by computers than humans.


In the future, it is likely that AI will also decide the behaviour of things that we send to space instead of human prompts from Earth. For example, we will be sending spacecraft further into space then ever before. Due to this distance, they are not always within range to communicate information back to Earth. This means that the spacecraft will need to be smart enough to learn and eventually decide when and how to return the data that they have collected. Because we will be travelling further into the unknown, these spacecraft will also need to make decisions on their own in new environments (like new forces of gravity, different temperature ranges and unknown dust or asteroid encounters).


When sending astronauts on longer missions and to further destinations in the solar system, AI will also be used to help humans respond to unexpected events. Software that is able to respond to medical emergencies or broken equipment will better prepare the astronauts for these future missions. For example, if a medical procedure needs to take place on board a spaceship of astronauts that is far from Earth, live communication with a doctor or surgeon on Earth will not be possible. Instead, the spaceship’s machines will be capable of learning and reasoning to assist in these scenarios.


In June 2018, the small AI robot named CIMON flew to the space station on the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.Developed by Europe's Airbus on behalf of Germany's DLR, the 5-kilogram sphere can talk to people, who it can recognize with the help of facial-recognition software. By conducting experiments and assisting the astronauts, the robot was a valuable mission partner during its brief two-day stay on the station. This project aims to demonstrate how humans and machines can effectively interact and cooperate on space missions.


CIMON , the AI space robot (DLR/T. Bourry/ESA) Source


In general, new spacecraft will be capable of being more independent, self-reliant and autonomous. Because scientists and cannot predict when or where discoveries will be made in space, AI will be a helpful tool to help space technology watch for things, to notice important findings and for sending important information back to us on Earth. Finally, AI will reduce costs by lowering the needed ground operations conducted by people, which also means that that it could lower risks for human workers.


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