How is artificial intelligence (AI) being used in space exploration?

First published on January 12, 2022

Last updated at April 22, 2022

 

4 minute read

John Patrick Hinek

Growth

TLDR

While in its infancy, AI shows promise to become the future of space exploration. AI is used for human assistance in space missions and surveying of planets and asteroids.

Outline

  • Intro

  • CIMON

  • Mars Rover

  • Asteroid research

  • Closing

Intro

Netflix’s

Don’t Look Up

depicts a fictionalized version of the United States’s reaction to a killer asteroid hurtling towards earth. While unclear how true to life the events in the film would be if the world found itself in a similar situation, one thing is for certain: artificial intelligence (AI) would be deployed in addressing the discovery and/or destruction of the asteroid. In real life, AI is in its infancy when it comes to space exploration, but shows promise in becoming the industry’s future.

Source: B612

CIMON

No great science fiction film would be complete without a robot to guide our main character through space. IMB and Airbus have made this a reality with

Project CIMON

(Crew Initiative Mobile Companion), an AI assistant for astronauts. CIMON is a spherical robot designed as a companion for astronauts at the International Space Station to aid in task assistance and increase the general efficiency of space missions.

During missions, CIMON allows astronauts the ability to focus solely on the task at hand. Instead of having their laptop at the ready for questions that may come up, astronauts can simply ask CIMON and quickly get an answer. Documenting tasks is made much easier with CIMON as it can freely move around the astronaut at their command.

Newer models of CIMON, CIMON 2, are being built to act not only as a task assistant, but as an emotional companion as well. The isolation of space travel can often cause mental strains, furthered by delayed communication from the base. Using neural networks to hold conversations with astronauts, the goal of CIMON being equipped to hold conversations could prove to make space travel much less mentally straining.

Source: JoinDispora

Mars Rover

Arguably one of the most famous space exploration deployments, the Mars Rover, received an upgrade with AI. The newest version of the Mars Rover, Perseverance, used AI from the very start with its landing software. The surface of Mars is full of large rocks and craters which could be fatal to a mission if the rover were to land in one of these spots. The Perseverance landing spacecraft surveyed the surface of Mars while navigating towards it, and properly adapted and reacted to potential dangers. AI is also being used on board to navigate itself around Mars. While this latter feature is closely monitored and slow moving, scientists hope that the rover can one day navigate itself around Mars entirely autonomously.

Source: NewScientist

The Mars Rover Perseverance also uses PIXL, or

Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry

. Using strong X-ray technology, PIXL can detect the chemical composition of rocks found on Mars and what ones will be worth collecting and bringing back to earth. To collect the actual rock samples, AI is used to get the most accurate aim and guide the rover’s mechanical arm.

Source: Nature.com

Asteroid research

NASA is committed to bringing AI innovation into more of its systems and projects. The Frontier Development Lab (FDL) brings together space and technology innovators to accelerate the advancement of new technologies.

One of the technologies born from the FDL is the potentially planet-saving asteroid monitoring. This

project

took radar observations of asteroids and aimed to model them with accuracy to its space, size, and other physical properties. This process took months when done solely by humans. Using deep learning to produce the 3D space of the asteroid and machine learning to predict the asteroid’s spin, the algorithm can produce its models in as little as four days.

Source: Scientific Visualization Studio

Closing

NASA and other space agencies have shown a great initiative in creating AI technologies that will expand our knowledge of the solar system. Future space missions may not be limited by what the human body can withstand, as robots could make up their own astronaut crew. The future of space exploration does not exist without the power of AI.

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