Five ways artificial intelligence can help space exploration

Artificial intelligence has been making waves in recent years, enabling us to solve problems faster than traditional computing could ever allow. Recently, for example, Google’s artificial intelligence subsidiary DeepMind developed AlphaFold2, a program which solved the protein-folding problem. This is a problem which has had baffled scientists for 50 years.

Advances in AI have allowed us to make progress in all kinds of disciplines – and these are not limited to applications on this planet. From designing missions to clearing Earth’s orbit of junk, here are a few ways artificial intelligence can help us venture further in space.

Astronaut assistants

CIMON will assist astronauts on the International Space Station. NASA/Kim Shiflett, CC BY

Do you remember Tars and Case, the assistant robots from the film Interstellar? While these robots don’t exist yet for real space missions, researchers are working towards something similar, creating intelligent assistants to help astronauts. These AI-based assistants, even though they may not look as fancy as those in the movies, could be incredibly useful to space exploration.

A recently developed virtual assistant can potentially detect any dangers in lengthy space missions such as changes in the spacecraft atmosphere – for example increased carbon dioxide – or a sensor malfunction that could be potentially harmful. It would then alert the crew with suggestions for inspection.

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An AI assistant called Cimon was flown to the international space station (ISS) in December 2019, where it is being tested for three years. Eventually, Cimon will be used to redu ce astronauts’ stress by performing tasks they ask it to do. NASA is also developing a companion for astronauts aboard the ISS, called Robonaut, which will work alongside the astronauts or take on tasks that are too risky for them.

Mission design and planning

Planning a mission to Mars is not an easy task, but artificial intelligence can make it easier. New space missions traditionally rely on knowledge gathered by previous studies. However, this information can often be limited or not fully accessible.

This means the technical information flow is constrained by who can access and share it among other mission design engineers. But what if all the information from practically all previous space missions were available to anyone with authority in just a few clicks. One day there may be a smarter system – similar to Wikipedia, but with artificial intelligence that can answer complex queries with reliable and relevant information – to help with early design and planning of new space missions.