Artificial Intelligence to Boost Space-Probe Efficiency

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2006

In a shift some hail as a revolution in space technology, scientists are reprogramming existing space probes to make more decisions on their own.

Experts say artificial intelligence will help unmanned spacecraft work more efficiently and send better data back to Earth.

Rebecca Castaño of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, says even the current Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity will soon benefit from smarter software. Their upgrades are scheduled for this summer.

(See National Geographic magazine's 2005 Mars rover roundup.)

As part of their mission, the rovers' scan for atmospheric phenomena, such as dust devils (small sandy whirlwinds) or clouds.

But because the probes can't recognize these features on their own, they waste time beaming photos of little or no interest back to Earth. That will change in coming weeks, when a planned software upgrade will teach the rovers how to look for clouds and dust devils and instruct them to send back only the most useful images.

Similarly, scientists are working to provide greater autonomy to probes now orbiting the red planet.

These satellites can take many more photos than they can send home—a bottleneck scientists lament.

"If we can analyze [that data] onboard for features of interest, it's easier to get more good stuff," Castaño said, speaking last week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Volcanoes, Floods, and Icebergs

Steve A. Chien, a JPL computer scientist and AGU panel speaker, said that the new approach, called onboard autonomy, is already in use on the Earth Observing-1 spacecraft, or EO-1.

The Earth-orbiting satellite is designed to capture high-resolution images of geological events, such as volcanic eruptions, floods, and the breakup of large polar ice sheets.

Continued on Next Page >>


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