Why the next space explorers could be autonomous robots

Artist’s rendering of of Earth-Observing-1, an Earth science satellite that used AI to study lava lakes in an Icelandic volcano.
Artist’s rendering of of Earth-Observing-1, an Earth science satellite that used AI to study lava lakes in an Icelandic volcano. JPL

Here on Earth, the rise of autonomous vehicles looms large. But researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are more interested in using that sort of automated decision-making to explore remote destinations in space, according to an article published Wednesday in Science Robotics.

Artificial intelligence-enabled robots can look for highly unusual conditions on planets or comets and make the decision to investigate them before receiving instructions from Earth. So far, AI has moved on its own to reveal changes in lava lakes back on this planet as well as dust devils on Mars.

“What I’m most excited about is taking these capabilities we’ve demonstrated pretty close to home and putting them on missions that are going much farther away where you can’t do the mission if you don’t have autonomy,” said Kiri Wagstaff, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at the laboratory, known as JPL.

AI-controlled missions could boost space exploration because communications between spacecraft or instruments and Earth are limited by the speed of light. The further away you send your message, the longer it takes to arrive and receive a signal back. In 2012, it took seven anxious minutes to hear that the Curiosity rover successfully landed on Mars, which is relatively close to Earth. Reports back from the New Horizons probe that flew by Pluto in 2015 took 4  1/2 hours.

If a spacecraft needs to wait on instructions, delays of minutes, hours or even days for spacecraft sent into deep space mean missing out on precious observation time. Even if delays weren’t an issue, so many instruments need to communicate with Earth that it isn’t possible to keep up constant communication. And robots would need to be autonomous when exploring places where communication isn’t possible, for instance while searching for life under the ice of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

In addition to relying less on instructions from Earth, autonomous robots can observe unusual or short-lived events scientists would otherwise miss. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers of the Mars Exploration Program made the decision to transmit images of dust devils on the surface of Mars rather than transmitting footage from the limited times it’s programmed to make observations for scientists to dig through.

“With autonomy you can leave the camera on the whole time and let (the robot) pick out the interesting stuff to send back, and not miss anything,” said Wagstaff.

The Mars Laboratory Rover, or Curiosity, demonstrated even more autonomy. It took pictures of the landscape, identified interesting rocks and chose which targets to fire its laser on to get compositional information about.

“This is something a human would do if they were there. Since they’re not, it can pick up the slack and get the data without waiting for images to come down to Earth,” said Wagstaff.

Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan who researches autonomous systems, predicts that robots will play crucial roles in setting up and maintaining the habitat because the astronauts will be busy exploring Mars and working to survive. “If we really are going to send people to Mars, one of the things that’s been downplayed is how much robotic support astronauts are going to need if they expect to survive and build a habitat  because the environment is just so harsh,” she said.

There are challenges to using AI, too. To anticipate what might go wrong with automated decision-making, researchers sometimes spend months and years thinking through the scenarios a robot may encounter. For instance, the spacecraft could harm itself by shooting a laser at its own body itself to try to get at a rock underneath, Wagstaff said.

One of the biggest obstacles to using more AI is social acceptance. Any space mission is a big investment and scientists need to trust the systems to work.

“It can sound very intimidating to have the rover make its own decisions about things and the mission operators need to feel comfortable with that,” said Wagstaff.

But the payoffs could be huge. With AI robots or fleets looking for life or exploring newly discovered exoplanets, autonomous robots can travel farther into space than we can realistically send humans, possibly making a 60-year journey to explore our neighboring solar system, Alpha Centauri.

Carolyn Wilke: 916-321-1086, @CarolynMWilke