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NASA Says AI Will Lead the Future of Space Exploration

Posted July 12, 2017

Space is the final frontier. NASA doesn’t yet have the technology to send humans all over the universe at reasonable speeds. It also doesn’t have cryo-pods or sleep systems either like you would find in most sci-fi flicks. Advanced technology is important because traveling great distances in space would take a long, long time without it.

So, to explore the great beyond NASA scientists are going to have to come up with something remarkable. Cue advanced AI and automated probes.

Why AI and Robots Are the New Astronauts

Understandably, Steve Chien and Kiri Wagstaff — from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — believe that future expeditions will be carried out by space probes controlled entirely by AI, rather than human prompts or commands.

The most crucial reason is that of the time it takes to travel distances in space. By the time the robot or probe reaches a distant area of space, a whole new generation of scientists will be alive.

Probes will also travel so far that they’re no longer within the range of wireless communications, at least for timely command retrieval. They’ll traverse new, unexplored areas of the universe which mean encountering new climates, objects, temperatures and gravities.

That means they’ll need the software and tools to learn and adapt to various environmental conditions and elements — without any outside input.

How AI Is Already Used to Explore the Galaxy

Believe it or not, NASA has already been using artificial intelligence to explore the Milky Way Galaxy.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, launched in 2003, were equipped with an AI driving system called Autonav, which aided in exploring Mars’ surface. Curiosity, the current Mars rover, also relies on a system called AEGIS or Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science.

The AI-based system is designed to analyze and select traits of Mars that seem interesting and then document and share the findings with scientists back home. In fact, the AI powering Curiosity is an excellent example of how the technology could evolve to further space exploration.

How AI Adapts for Deep Space Exploration

Hurdles to this evolution exist, however.

For starters, NASA must first consider future power applications for space travel that can endure the bitter and cold temperatures of deep space without the loss of valuable heat. NASA also must develop technology that’s conducive to long travel times and is easily rechargeable. A dead battery on a space probe could offset several, if not more, years of work.

Second, the ultimate goal is not only to reach distant places but to study, explore and collect new kinds of data. If you find a new type of object — like an unforeseen asteroid — you may need to collect information you never expected to.

You’ll want a core sample to study its composition, photos to study its appearance, extended observations to see how it moves or interacts with other elements and more. It’s this ability to adapt to changing environments that will bring AI probes and robots to new heights — or faraway places.

Third, because of communication delays, a message from Earth to Pluto would take five hours to arrive, an AI-controlled system will need to take immediate action and not rely on human communication for unexpected encounters, such as an asteroid or weather conditions.

If a probe, for example, is about to enter an electrical storm and only has a split second to act, you don’t want it waiting for commands from Earth. You want it to redirect its course around the storm, both to protect itself and its mission. This ability to self-think is crucial to exploring new areas of the universe because scientists can’t always predict what probes will encounter.

NASA’s commitment to developing AI for space exploration, as well as its use in several missions already, indicate that AI will lead the future of space exploration because of its longevity and durability over human astronauts.

Image by SpaceX

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