SpaceX, part of the New Era of Space Exploration, is driving innovation, however, despite the company’s experience and leadership in technology, AI-powered space navigation is proving to be universally more complex than in other areas, even those as advanced as a self-driving Tesla. Tesla’s autonomous navigation system caught the attention of NASA some years back when it began to nurture relationships with new technology companies. Other companies which are rocketing AI into this New Era of Space Exploration include Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Microsoft, Google, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.
Since the Sputnik was launched in 1957, space exploration and space navigation have relied heavily on technological advancements. The development of artificial intelligence was seen for its potential as a disruptive force that would precipitate progress. In 2019 a Global Market Insights report concluded that the space robotics market would take a quantum jump from the value of $2 billion in 2018 to $3.5 billion by 2025, mostly fueled by the integration of AI technologies into systems developed for space exploration, attracting the interest of giant tech companies. SpaceX has come a long way since its early years and has now forged a tight relationship with NASA. When it comes to understanding how AI systems perform differently in a self-driving Tesla than in a spacecraft, SpaceX is the company to answer.
While a Tesla in self-driving mode will use its cameras and sensors to go forward or in reverse, turn right or left, go slow or relatively fast, it will always be grounded to road movements. On the other hand, a spacecraft will do much more. It will launch and lift off, break Earth’s atmosphere, engage in stage separation, roll 360 degrees, engage in vertical and horizontal rolls, deploy autonomous self-driving rovers, land on distant moons and planets, dock, flip, reenter the atmosphere, set interstellar orbits, conduct burst burns, separation of stages, and take on other extremely complex maneuvers. It will do all this in the hostile vastness of space. To track its positions spacecrafts do not use cameras they use complex systems like the Deep Space Network DNS, a network of international antennas used for deep-space tracking and communication.
Looking at the interior of a Dragon SpaceX capsule two things become evident at first sight. Firstly, the machine is designed to take on more challenging navigations than a Tesla car. Secondly, the spacecraft is almost void of controls. The Dragon is only equipped with two touch screens, compared to traditional space capsules and crafts, this speaks of the automatization of space navigation and space flight operations today. The Dragon controls have no stick, astronauts navigate inputting a series of commands into the screens. There are still some astronaut interventions during operations, but most of the maneuvers that used to be in hands of NASA astronauts before today are not any more.
Deep Space Navigation
Space navigation is composed of three stages, mission design, keeping track of mission, and correcting positions. Design, monitoring, and correction maneuvers are conducted on Earth in large control rooms. Corrections are relayed or uploaded from ground control to spacecraft sometimes with great delays such as in the Mars NASA Ingenuity mission, affected by the distance between Earth and Mars. AI technology is pushing space exploration into new autonomous systems for navigation. These new solutions aim to monitor and track position, velocity, and other data in real-time. AI is transforming conventional navigation systems into more autonomous systems by building on more than fifty years of experience and know-how of deep space missions.
The differences between a self-driving Tesla and AI space navigation are universally intimidating, however, they do find common ground in technology and AI. When fully charged a new Tesla Model S Plaid will cover a total distance of 520 miles at top speeds of 200 miles per hour while the SpaceX Starship will travel 33.9 million miles to Mars at the incredible hypersonic Mach 25 speed, that’s 19,182 miles per hour and almost 37 times faster than the new Tesla. Despite the differences in environment, software, systems, and navigation both systems are Autonomous Navigation Systems powered strongly by AI software and deep learning.