Artificial Intelligence in Space Exploration, The Final Frontier?

Artificial Intelligence and Space Exploration sounds like a match made in heaven, or at least in the cosmos. As we begin to explore further into space the speed of light restriction of 186,000 miles per second has a serious baring on the communication time between spacecraft and planet Earth.  When rovers went to Mars in the past they were restricted by this limit. It was necessary for the rover to send data back to earth and then wait to receive a command from earth on what action to take next. This requires a large ground team in NASA to operate the mission and it results in a lot of waiting time between communications. The promise of autonomous rovers would allow most of the work to be done with on earth by building in technologies which allow the rover to learn and adapt to the environment which it finds itself in. Prerogatives which would be programmed into the rover before the mission might include searching for water or to sample minerals which it finds on the host planet. HAL-2001-Space-Odyssey-Movie-AI

HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey  is an example of the kind of AI that could accompany humans on long missions in Space. One would hope that any AI sent on these missions would have a stronger interest in the preservation of it’s passengers than HAL did. Red Dwarf had much the same central AI system which was more accommodating to human life, at the cost of sarcasm – but you can’t have your cake and eat it.  AI in space has long been very popular science fiction trope and maybe the real implications of AI in Space, certainly in the near future, will be a bit more mundane and practical. Perhaps one day we could send out super fast probes with AI intelligence to scope out alien life in the universe although many technological challenges would have to be overcome, let alone the Elephant in the room which is the sheer magnitude of space, it’s fairly big.


For now, scientists and engineers can focus on how to improve solar system voyages of probes and rovers to other planets.In the mid 2000s, programmers at NASA developed a  software called the ‘Science Planning Interface for Engineering’ (SPIFe), pronounced ‘spiffy.’ They  hoped it will dramatically reduce the number of people needed to achieve mission goals.  Artificial intelligence has long been a goal of NASA to aid in space exploration.  The purpose of these kind of advancements is to have a robot that can learn about it’s surroundings and adapt to terrain and mission objectives.

The kind of algorithms that Google has developed for a robot to learn about it’s surroundings and create a map as it goes without being preloaded could be very useful in space exploration. NASA and Nissan recently joined forces for a 5 year project to improve vehicle autonomy. A NASA scientist highlighted the importance of autonomy in space when he compared current rover technology which is not very autonomous and has many limitations to the requirement for smart rovers in the future who will be able to conduct much of their exploratory work without human interference. It is not just around the corner but the future is definitely pointing at an increase in AI in everyday life but also in space exploration.

Robonaut facing off with an astronaut suit in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas

Having actual AI robots in the International Space Station is another step NASA has taken to grow AI usage in Space. Robonaut 2 is a dexterous humanoid robot designed by NASA and General Motors to assist astronauts on the international space station with space walks and other important tasks.

Although they are baby steps the possibilities in the future are quite profound. There will come a time when we don’t need to have astronauts on the International Space Station, although they would probably protest – being zero gravity addicted at this stage – “of course I’ll have two desserts, I way nothing !”


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