Humanity has made great leaps when it comes to space exploration. Our efforts in understanding the Universe have been mostly successful as a result of continuous hard work and innovation. One aspect that has aided our intergalactic endeavors is Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is gaining more popularity when it comes to space exploration and could potentially provide answers to some of the Universe’s most complex questions.

AI has already revolutionized many industries and has had a widespread impact on our world. Even things that we take for granted – like the ability to shop online on Amazon – are powered by AI. Automation plays a huge role in ensuring the success of e-commerce; and while a lot of AI applications in e-commerce are consumer-facing, AI has also changed the logistics and fulfillment processes.

For instance, in this article that discusses automation and AI in e-commerce, the authors note “many of the most high-profile experiments with e-commerce fulfillment automation involve Amazon’s work on self-driving delivery trucks and autonomous delivery drones.” This wouldn’t be possible without the integration of advanced AI. 

The Challenges Involved

But while the AI of today might be enough to command drones and facilitate self-driving trucks, is it enough for superior AI-led space exploration? The potential is definitely there, but as Abby Norman states in an article on Futurism, there will be no shortage of difficulties. For one, to micromanage AI-led missions in deep space, probes will need to be knowledgeable enough to continue their journey without instruction as they will be outside the communications range. Norman writes, “That also means that eventually, they’ll have to work out when, and how, to return with the data they have collected. A key aspect of this is knowing which data to document, and how to identify it: for example, deciding if weather is due to a storm or is normal for the planet being observed.”

Secondly, AI-powered probes will have to adapt to environmental factors like asteroids, extreme temperatures, and varying gravity. Finally, because of how long it takes to reach distant parts of our solar system, “generations of scientists will die before probes return, leaving the probes somewhat to their own devices – so to speak”. That’s no exaggeration – in fact, it would take 87,000 years to reach the nearest star system with our current state of technology.

Another concern that surrounds AI (not just in the space field) is the high risk of a cyber breach. Due to its connected nature, AI raises the potential for cyber attacks. In fact, in an article titled The Risk Artificial Intelligence Poses To Future Cybersecurity, authors discuss a report published on the malicious use of AI: “Areas that could potentially be affected, according to the report, include the expansion on existing threats, AI changing the attributes of current attack models to make them more efficient and effective, and the introduction of new types of threats.”

Dextre, Canadian Space Agency
Without the right cybersecurity measures in place, AI, at any of its formulation phases, can be hacked and used for malicious purposes. In the wrong hands, AI used for autonomous space exploration could result in a global catastrophe.

With space travel, this threat is also elevated due to the sheer number of people who are involved in making space missions happen. Without the right cybersecurity measures in place, AI, at any of its formulation phases, can be hacked and used for malicious purposes. Imagine this situation in initial phases of space travel – in the wrong hands, AI used for autonomous space exploration could result in a global catastrophe. So first and foremost, any AI-led missions need to have complex cyber security protocols in place.  

Current Integrations

While AI-led space missions do sound appealing, there are a lot of hurdles that new to first be surmounted to make these a reality. That being said, AI, in conjunction with human efforts, has already made an impact on the field of space exploration.

Consider CIMON, short for “Crew Interactive Mobile Companion”. According to an article on Space.com, CIMON was the first AI-equipped machine to be flown into space. As a robot, CIMON can converse with people and is able to identify who it’s talking to thanks to facial recognition software. It is also able to fly around once aboard the ISS. CIMON’s mission was to work on three separate investigations. As stated by experts, “They will experiment with crystals, work together to solve the Rubik’s cube and perform a complex medical experiment using CIMON as an ‘intelligent’ flying camera.”

CIMON, the astronaut assistant developed and built in Germany has worked together with the German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst for around 90 minutes in the Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS).

Additionally, CIMON is able to access lots of information like photos and videos about a specific procedure that is underway. It is also smart enough to deal with “questions beyond the procedure” that astronauts might have. “Having AI – having that knowledge base and the ability to tap into it in a way that’s useful for the task that you’re doing – is really critical for having humans further and further away from the planet,” says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) program manager.

While CIMON operates in space, AI has aided space exploration efforts here on Earth too. Today, AI is being used to find and identify gravitational lenses. Astronomer Carlo Enrico Petrillo and his colleagues have developed a tool that is extremely good with visual information. Made up of digital “neurons”, the program fires in response to input, much like the human brain. To quote an article on The Verge, “Feed these programs (called neural networks) lots of data and they’ll begin to recognize patterns.” After some fine-tuning, astronomers now have a tool that can recognize gravitational lenses in the blink of an eye – all thanks to AI.

Due to this success, AI is being used to develop a number of other research tools for space exploration. Some are being used to identify and classify galaxies, while others are being used to sift through immense amounts of data for exciting signals. Still, more have been used to identify pulsar stars and locate unusual exoplanets. In short, AI has almost infinite applications in aiding space research, in a reliable and efficient manner. And even though it may seem questionable to place complete trust in AI and machine-learning applications, astronomers don’t seem worried. As stated by Petrillo, “In general, humans are more biased, less efficient, and more prone to mistakes than machines.”

The potential for AI in space exploration is vast. However, AI-led missions need to overcome various challenges to be successful. In time, as technology advances, harnessing the power of AI to unlock the secrets of the universe will serve humanity well.

Frankie Wallace

Frankie Wallace is a freelance writer from the northwest who contributes to a wide variety of blogs online. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate from the University of Montana.
Frankie Wallace

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