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Artificial intelligence helps boost Mars knowledge

Artificial intelligence (AI) is helping in a search for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet.

Since January 2005, Mars Express has been using its sophisticated instruments to study the atmosphere, surface, and subsurface of Mars, confirming the presence of water and looking for other signatures of life on and below the Red Planet’s rocky terrain, said officials at the European Space Operations Centre.

The spacecraft generates huge volumes of scientific data, which it must download to Earth at the right time and in the correct sequence, otherwise they can lose data packets permanently when new data overwrites existing data because there is limited on-board memory.

Traditionally, data downloading went through human-operated scheduling software to generate command sequences sent to Mars Express, telling it when to dump specific data packets.

“This is tedious, time-consuming, and never really eliminated the occasional loss—forever—of valuable science data,” said Alessandro Donati, Head of the Advanced Mission Concepts and Technologies Office at ESA’s Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany.

The downloading problem involves several constantly changing variables, including spacecraft orientation, ground station availability, space-ground communication bandwidth, on-board storage availability, and the varying amounts of data generated by each of the seven on-board instruments, Donati said. All these must reach peak efficiency in very short time, often with as little as a few hours between ground station passes.

But since 2005, AI researchers at Italy’s Institute for Cognitive Science and Technology (ISTC-CNR), led by Dr. Amedeo Cesta, and mission planners and computer scientists at ESOC have been developing a solution for the complex Mars Express scheduling problem by applying AI techniques to the problem, similar to those used to solve scheduling and optimization problems faced by airlines, shipping companies, and large construction projects.

The result of this work is a new “smart” tool, dubbed MEXAR2, or Mars Express AI Tool, which passed initial testing and validation and is now an integral part of the Mars Express mission planning system.

MEXAR2 works by considering the variables that affect data downloading—including the overall science observation schedule for all Mars Express instruments—and then intelligently projecting which on-board data packets might be later lost due to memory conflicts. It then optimizes the data download schedule and generates the commands needed to implement the download. “With MEXAR2, any loss of stored data packets has been largely eliminated,” said Fred Jansen, ESA’s mission manager for Mars Express.

MEXAR2 reduced the mission planning team’s workload by 50% compared to the old manual method. “And because it optimizes bandwidth used to receive data on Earth, we have been able to free expensive ground station time for other missions,” said Michel Denis, Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESOC.

Artificial intelligence provides solutions for complex problems and has now entered the space mission operations field as a value-adding technology. “Mars Express is the first European deep-space exploration mission to fly using an AI tool on the ground, and the technology is boosting science return while reducing time and resource costs,” Donati said.

Source:  1 May 2008, In Tech Home, Artificial intelligence helps boost Mars knowledge, Staff at In Tech Home, All contents copyright of ISA © 1995-2008 All rights reserved.
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