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How AI is Sky Rocketing Space Exploration

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The use of AI in space exploration is increasing at an unprecedented pace, with the market being valued at a staggering $2 billion and still growing. 

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic successfully soared to space on Sunday. Ex-Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin is the next billionaire to travel to space this month. While these are potential space tourism initiatives, the space race began ever since humans found that there exists a place beyond earth.

Starting with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and the first man landing on the moon a decade later, the race to space was always on with nations trying their hands on exploring this exciting frontier. As the technology evolved, the use of disruptive trends like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) in space exploration started increasing at an unprecedented pace, with the market being valued at a staggering $2 billion and still growing. Hence, it is not surprising that several technology giants and startups are jumping into this space bandwagon to score big with AI initiatives.

Boom Time for AI in Space 

Government agencies and private organizations alike are working to overcome risks and barriers that block progress in learning more about space, whether in the form of cosmic radiation, earth-shattering meteors, or colossal galactic events. They have partnered with tech specialists to make use of AI and ML to identify potentially dangerous risks and events in space.

muskBeing on the forefront of space innovation is Elon Musk’s SpaceX that has been using AI technology at many stances. The company carried out a major AI project by launching SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that carried Crew Dragon to International Space Station (ISS). The rocket was powered by sophisticated AI autopilot steers that drove the crew to outer space. The rocket also used ML and computer vision’s power to transform space exploration. During the mission, SpaceX has also sent an AI-powered robot named ‘mousetronauts’ to space.

Besides, the rocket also used machine learning and computer vision’s power to transform space exploration. SpaceX used a convex optimization algorithm to determine the best way to land the rocket, with real-time computer vision data aiding route identification. Machine learning algorithm was the secret tool that successfully used the first reusable rocket for space exploration. Meanwhile, during the mission, SpaceX has also sent an AI-powered robot named ‘mousetronauts’ to space.

The other company is Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin. With Bezos moving his interest to space explorations, the company is not only getting ready to take people to space but also mulling a living environment there.

The company powered by Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) high-performance computing, AI/ML capabilities, is aiming to see millions of people working and living in space. Besides, the company is also working on autonomous flying robots that can fly into space, bring themselves back and land to keep away pilots from risk, as Bezos mentions, “Blue Origin is going to lay the foundations for colonizing space.”

Virgin Galactic plans to start regular commercial operations in early 2022, and is aiming to carry out 400 flights per year from Spaceport America, its base in New Mexico.

These companies will serve the nascent market for suborbital flights lasting just a few minutes, long enough for passengers to experience and view the contour of the planet – giving rise to what is called space tourism and research.

Northrop Grumman, a key partner in NASA’s Artemis Program, is indulging in many artificial intelligence funding and developments. The company was reportedly collaborating and investing in Deepwave Digital to support research, development, and integration of technologies and won a contract worth $935 million to develop living quarters for the US space agency’s planned outpost in lunar orbit. For example, astronauts will live and conduct research in the Habitation And Logistics Outpost (HALO) made by Northrop for the lunar Gateway – a vital component of NASA’s Artemis moon program.

The space sensors and actuators market is growing at a significant rate across the world and the market is projected to grow from USD 3.3 billion in 2021 to USD 7.7 billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 18.5% from 2021 to 2026.

Increasing number of small satellite launches by SpaceX and OneWeb, and growing investments in space exploration missions such Mars and Moon are fueling the growth of the space sensors and actuators market.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has been developing AI methods for space and Earth applications for many years and this year, it is setting up an Institute of Artificial Intelligence Security. In 2018 DLR launched an AI assistant to support its astronauts in their daily tasks onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Fully voice-controlled CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile companioN) is able to see, speak, hear, understand and even fly.

robotsNASA is also using AI for many applications, and has set up an Artificial Intelligence Group that performs basic research that supports scientific analysis, spacecraft operations, mission analysis, deep space network operations and space transportation systems.

For example, NASA has cooperated with Google to train its extensive AI algorithms to effectively sift through the data from the Kepler mission to look for signals from an exoplanet crossing in front of its parent star. This successful collaboration quickly led to the discovery of two new exoplanets previously missed by human scientists. After its initial success the project is ploughing through data from other missions to continue its search for new planets.

The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) also developed an intelligent system that took pictures of experiments in the ISS Japanese module, KIBO. JAXA’s Int-Ball operated autonomously and could take pictures and videos. It was developed to promote the autonomy of extra- and intra-vehicular experiments, while seeking to acquire the robotics technology necessary for future exploration missions.

Meanwhile, French space agency CNES is working with Clemessy to develop a fluidic systems simulator using AI neural networks, the UK Space Agency has funded a project that uses AI to detect buried archaeological remains in satellite imagery, and the Italian Space Agency even co-founded an AI-focused company.

Besides, growing investments by several governments particularly in developed and developing economies such as India, Russia and China, among others, are driving the market growth.

AI Charting Unexplored Territories

Scientists are using AI in charting unmarked galaxies, supernovas, stars, blackholes, and studying cosmic events that would otherwise go unnoticed without using AL/ML algorithms. Then there is the use of deep learning (DL) to simulate galaxy formation and using it to classify galactic images seen from the Hubble Space Telescope.

“One advantage of AI is that it never tires and can grade consistently,” AI expert and author Ronald van Loon says in a recent article.

“While astronauts are trained psychologically and physically to deal with the extreme environments in space under no gravity conditions and other potential dangers, 70% of all astronauts that go into space get ill because of zero gravity,” he says.

As it is not humanly possible to explore every facet of the space, it is here that AI robot can prove to be useful by identifying patterns in their behavior and giving them medical help as and when they need it.

Another application for AI in outer space is in self-driving spacecrafts, just like self-driving cars here on Earth. Spacecraft operators will have to train machine learning algorithms to steer clear of objects in outer space instead of slamming right into them.

We are still a long way off before developing fully autonomous systems and making them accessible for scientists. In order to put AI to good use, scientists have to train the models to ethically gather data, troubleshoot problems, identify recorded signals and mitigate the risks. Hence, it is of paramount importance to keep skilled human operators in the loop at all times.

For now, AI will continue to comb through large amounts of information. Sooner or later, people and businesses may occupy outer space and look at the world from the stars. And that’s not really a bad idea at all considering the earth is teeming with people, causing greater health crisis and rising climate change.

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at sohini.bagchi@trivone.com