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NASA satellites to use artificial intelligence

Artist depiction of an undeployed stack of three experimental satellites that will use AI software
Artist depiction of an undeployed stack of three experimental satellites that will use AI software  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- Software that can make decisions without guidance from humans will guide a constellation of spacecraft that launch in 2002, according to NASA.

The Artificial Intelligence program will direct three sibling satellites, allowing them to respond to events on their own, said NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which will manage the mission.

The miniature satellites, each of which weighs less than 33 pounds (15 kg), will fly in a tight formation in orbit as part of the Three Corner Sat mission.

"The onboard software will perform decision-making function for the spacecraft," said lead project scientist Steve Chien. "Like a brain that uses inputs from the eyes and ears to make decisions, this software uses data from spacecraft sensors, such as cameras, to make decisions on how to carry out the mission."

NASA has dabbled before in using artificial intelligence to govern a spacecraft. During one experiment AI software controlled the Deep Space I robot ship, currently en route to an encounter with a comet.

But the latest AI program will direct the mission without interruption for at least three months, according to JPL, which is based in Pasadena, California.

Conventional satellites engage in a laborious, protracted form of communications with ground controllers. All science data is beamed back to Earth, good or bad.

But the AI software, known as Continuous Activity Scheduling, Planning Execution and Replanning (CASPER), will have the ability to make real-time decisions based on the images it acquires and send back only those that it considers important.

Moreover, when a satellite faces hazards in space, perhaps an intense solar storm or unexpected blurry vision, mission engineers must come up with new computer instructions from scratch and send them to the probe.

But the new software will enable spacecraft to attempt to come up with their own solutions, rather than rely on time-consuming assistance from Earth.

"This capability represents a significant advance from traditional ground-based operations and offers promise to dramatically increase mission science for this and future missions," said Colette Wilklow, a project researcher and engineering student at the University of Colorado.

The mission, a joint project of NASA, universities and the military, will showcase satellite advances in stereo imaging, formation flying and autonomous command capability, JPL said.

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