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AI In Space: The Role of Machine Learning in Extraterrestrial and Interstellar Exploration

Posted November 5, 2019

For over a 100 years, we have always thought of one thing when we look up into the stars: are we alone?

This question has been integral to many of the endeavors that mankind has embarked on—especially in exploring outer space. From the first telescope to the International Space Station (ISS), it’s a part of humanity’s identity to explore space.

Image credit: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain

Image credit: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain

50 years after the first moon landing, scientists and industrialists are looking at emerging technologies to help us understand the variables of interstellar exploration and whether there is indeed life out there.

Like space travel, artificial intelligence (AI) has vaulted from science fiction into everyday reality. From AI aiming to eradicate colon cancer and improving agriculture, to firing up your TV and making restaurant reservations, the nascent technology is changing how we live. Artificial intelligence courses on online learning academy Udemy demonstrate the enormous variety of industrial use cases for AI. This includes applications in healthcare, manufacturing, marketing, and now even, space exploration.

Growing use cases

The use of AI in systems used to observe, analyze, and explore outer space is nothing new. The Sky Image Cataloging and Analysis Tool, for example, uses on-board AI to classify objects in the latest Palomar Sky Survey from low-resolution images. In addition, an AI program has been used to schedule Hubble Space Telescope observations since 1993. In 2017, a set of deep neural networks were trained to detect and classify radio signals with 95% accuracy to aid in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

But beyond the pursuit of sentient life outside Earth, space agency NASA uses machine learning to classify exoplanets and solar systems similar to our own. As tools in astrophysics, AI and ML can identify the elements present within the planet’s atmosphere.

The new frontier

More than just observation, experts are also exploring how AI can be used for navigation in interstellar travel. Last year, Space reported that NASA awarded a $330,000 research grant to a team developing an AI that can guide a ship amid space debris. The proponent Wei Kocsis is using the Ethereum blockchain technology to create a “decentralized, secure, and cognitive networking and computing infrastructure for deep space exploration.” This will be used when a spacecraft is in deep space and needs to autonomously navigate.

Similarly, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity obtained an AI upgrade named AEGIS (Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science). It automated the rover’s laser-firing capabilities and increased the pace of its data collection. AI systems are also used in monitoring spacecrafts and robots to lessen downtime and decrease risks of emergency repairs.

New space race

Of course, NASA isn’t alone in deploying AI in space exploration. Last year, European aerospace company Airbus developed an AI-powered robot named Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON). The spherical AI robot was launched aboard the ISS last year. According to the developers, CIMON will enable astronauts to explore further with the knowledge of humanity as its companion.

In the last few years, Fortune 500 billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have also been heavily investing in AI research for space exploration. While Musk believes that AI is like creating “an immortal dictator which we cannot run away from,” he’s funding initiatives like SpaceX and OpenAI for safer AI use.

More recently, Jeff Bezos revealed that his company Blue Origin had developed a new lunar lander. Additionally, his recent RE:MARS event highlights AI and space exploration as the new frontiers for humanity as we continue to tax this planet.

As AI technologies mature and more use cases are developed, its applications will enable us to explore more of what’s ‘out there’. Moreover, AI can aid humanity on how we will move beyond this world.


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