5 Ways AI Is Fueling the Next Phase of Space Exploration

March 8, 2021 - 8 minutes read

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Artificial intelligence (AI) has been achieving amazing results recently, allowing us to solve or get closer to solving decades-long problems in all kinds of industries. One major field that AI applications could make a big splash in is space and aeronautics. Although space exploration and technology isn’t a household name yet, the industry has been steadily innovating and growing with the increased privatization of the field in recent years.

Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been making big strides in advancing space technology in a variety of aspects, from rocket design, launch, and landing to computing and internal software. We haven’t seen how much AI can do for space and humanity’s future: the best is yet to come. Here are five ways AI is making space cleaner and easier to navigate and study.

#1: Processing Satellite Data

There are many satellites that circle the Earth, and they all generate a ton of data. The data is taken in by stations located all over the world, and it requires piecing together to make it useful for analysis. AI algorithms do very well when they can train and test with enormous amounts of data, and this is one area where we can see AI succeeding.

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Scientists around the world have used AI to process the data and then analyze it. AI has been used to estimate heat storage in urban areas, estimate solar radiation, and combine meteorological data with satellite imagery to estimate wind speeds. While humans have tried to crowdsource analyzing satellite imagery on a small scale, AI expands the horizon and possibilities.

AI can also be used in data processing on the actual satellites. Researchers have tested various AI methods as the backbone of a remote satellite health monitoring system. The application analyzed data from other satellites to find anomalies in their data, predict and monitor satellite health, and develop a visualization for humans to make decisions from.

#2: Cleaning Up Space Debris

According to the European Space Association, space debris involves nearly 34,000 objects that are all bigger than 10cm. This debris is often not in use and trash, but it poses an impending threat to existing and working space infrastructure. There are a few possible ways to deal with this growing problem.

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Scientists have tested out purposefully disintegrating the debris by sending it back through Earth’s atmosphere to burn up before it reaches the ground. Another method involves actively avoiding the space debris while it’s still in orbit. Researchers used a machine learning application to design maneuvers that avoid collisions. This approach also helps us avoid creating additional space debris.

#3: Navigating Space

We use Google Maps on Earth, which provides us with GPS technology. But this method of tracking your location and navigating doesn’t work in space. There is no real navigation in space… yet.

In 2018, a group of researchers from NASA and San Francisco-based Intel collaborated to develop a navigation system using AI to explore planets. They used millions of images from observation satellites and various missions to create a map of the Moon. This application is promising and will inspire the next generation of “space GPS”.

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#4: Designing and Planning Missions

AI can help with ambiguous and process-oriented tasks like designing and planning missions. Planning a mission to Mars (or even the Moon) isn’t easy, but it requires having a breadth of knowledge about past missions and published research. Unfortunately, this information can be difficult to find because it’s often not fully accessible.

AI won’t fully take over the planning of an entire mission, but it could be used as a query tool for mission design engineers to use during the early stages of planning and design. If an AI algorithm had data and information from almost all previous space missions, it could share this knowledge with anyone who’s allowed access. This type of tool could help information flow more freely, allowing design engineers to speed up their work without sacrificing quality.

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Researchers are already working on the concept of a virtual design engineering assistant that can help reduce the time that humans spend in planning and design. Named “Daphne”, the working prototype is being tested by systems engineers in satellite design times. The engineers report that Daphne has made their jobs easier by giving them relevant information, feedback, and answers to specific questions.

#5: Astronaut Assistants

AI-based assistants may soon be helping astronauts with whatever task they need assistance with. Although early versions of these assistants won’t look too sleek or robotic, they will be there as a tool to help astronauts with the multi-faceted type of work that’s required of them: astronauts must intimately know electrical and mechanical engineering, biology, physics, and chemistry, among many other subjects. And these topics could come up at any time, even during an emergency situation.

An AI-enabled assistant, trained on historical mission data, technical concepts, and spacecraft knowledge can be an asset to any team of astronauts. Researchers have been working on an AI astronaut assistant that looks for dangers in lengthy space missions, like sensor malfunctions or changes to the atmosphere in the spacecraft. It sends its analysis to the crew with any suggestions it has for further inspection.

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Another AI assistant, named “Cimon”, was sent to the International Space Station in December of 2019, where it’ll stay until its three-year testing is finished. Ultimately, the researchers want Cimon to reduce stress for the crew by performing tasks they want it to do.

The Future of Humanity

Space exploration will always be an inherent interest in humans, and eventually, humanity may even need to leave Earth. It’s imperative that we continue to explore space, decrease our impact on space, and improve upon the tools we have using emerging technologies like AI and machine learning. Not only do AI and machine learning help us with space, but they also help us improve lives on Earth. Technology affords us the best way forward, allowing us to explore further past what we’ve already seen

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