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AI's Role In Space Exploration

Artificial intelligence has long been transforming our daily lives and the daily operations of many businesses. From smart assistants like Siri and Alexa to more complex solutions that optimize business flow in large organizations, the technology has become so pervasive that it has almost become an inseparable companion.

But AI's power to revolutionize doesn't end there; it extends well beyond individual and company lives into such massive and complex industries as space exploration and science.

So what are some ways that this technology helps expand the horizons of humanity's capacity to explore space and make new groundbreaking discoveries?

The first step toward understanding how AI can contribute to this area of science and knowledge is, once again, drawing a comparison between an AI and a human.

Astronauts who push the boundaries of human knowledge of space today — and who have been doing that for many years now — usually have to undergo strenuous physical and psychological training to get ready for prolonged, risky space travel. According to NASA, it can take up to two years to become a fully qualified astronaut; some of the challenges they have to overcome on their path include living in a confined space with no gravity, learning medical procedures, operating a variety of aircrafts, undergoing survival training for emergency situations and even taking public speaking classes.

And even with all this training in place, there is still so much unknown about space that traveling into the vast unknown with uncertainty always carries the risk of being highly unpredictable. As one Analytics India Magazine article explained, this could take a toll on human explorers and affect their ability to make decisions in stressful situations.

And this is where AI's wide scope of capabilities comes into play.

While human astronauts were the first to step on the Moon, scientists are increasingly turning toward AI to approach space exploration in new and empowering ways. With AI algorithms' ability to quickly learn and pick up on patterns, the breakthroughs in this space have already begun offering new opportunities for spacecraft monitoring and autonomous navigation in space.

According to the MIT Technology Review, scientists are already working on the development of smart AI assistants designed specifically to assist astronauts in space exploration and alleviate some of the serious physical and psychological strains they have to endure in space. These assistants could follow the space crew closely, understand their needs and requirements ahead of time, analyze their emotions and their mental stability and address these issues in the most optimal way possible — all while the astronauts pave humanity's way to Mars.

Airbus, a European aerospace company, introduced an example of such an AI solution with the Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN (CIMON) — an AI-powered, 3D-printed spherical robot that's specifically designed to help astronauts. 

AI's abilities in data collection and surveillance could also help space exploration to take the next step in growth and development; and so AI-powered satellites are gradually starting to dominate the field. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), modern satellites provide more than 150 terabytes of data in a single day. By sending nimble robots into space for observation, it's possible that technologists could reduce the otherwise enormous cost of space missions and quickly analyze those large amounts of imagery registered by the satellites. Among several satellites and systems today are the Earth Observer 1 (EO-1) satellite, SKICAT, and ENVISAT, which reportedly use technologies like AI to generate actionable insights and guide important decision-making during exploration.

NASA's investment in AI technology spans beyond astronaut assistance; in 2018, it granted $330,000 to a research team for the development of an AI guide that could help spacecraft navigate in areas cluttered with debris. The AI-powered autonomous navigation system could use blockchain technology widely used in the cryptocurrency field to create a spacecraft that can think on its own and optimize the route through debris.

As Goldman Sachs (via SpaceNews) predicts the space industry will reach $1 trillion in value by the 2040s, it's not just large organizations that take advantage of AI solutions. With the goal to visit Mars in the future, Elon Musk was one of the first to recognize the potential of the industry when he founded SpaceX in 2002. It has already become the world's largest satellite operator; it manages more than 500 satellites. SpaceX's mission to colonize Mars is also driven by the idea of easing (and lowering the cost of) space travel through "reusable" rocket ships, such as Falcon 9. The premise of the idea is to reuse the most expensive parts of the rocket with each new launch, which could effectively reduce the cost of accessing and traveling through space.

With AI applications growing in popularity, there are still some challenges that tech leaders need to overcome to reach a point where AI applications will gain more widespread acceptance and use. The key one would be the issue of reliability: AI, after all, operates as a human brain and is prone to initial mistakes that get corrected as the system undergoes further training. The first steps of implementation, then, would require extensive testing before applying technology to real, end-goal missions in the space.

Although the space industry is only taking its first steps toward AI applications, there is still a lot of potential for it to uncover and fulfill by increasing its exploration of AI solutions. Just like there is in space, there is a lot of uncertainty that comes with adopting such high-end technologies, but one thing is for sure: To date, AI has done an invaluable job at seamlessly improving the daily lives of people and operations for businesses.

And who knows: The next thing it will do might as well be getting humans to Mars.

Originally published on Forbes


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