NASA Prepares Deep Space Mission—Why AI Will Play Important Role


As the new space race ramps up and humanity looks to deep space and potentially life as an interstellar species, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is preparing to launch a new high-powered lens into the void of deep space called the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope.

NASA hopes to use the new telescope to further investigate the phenomenon of dark matter and dark energy that are crucial to understanding the universe’s evolution.

The Roman mission is named after Dr. Nancy Grace Roman, the first female executive at NASA who also served as the organization’s first Chief of Astronomy.

Dr. Nancy Grace Roman. Image: NASA

“In the late ‘60s, we started flying telescopes into space, and she was the person who made this happen,” Dr. Dominic Benford, Program Scientist for the Nancy Grace Roman mission, told Decrypt. “So she’s colloquially called the ‘Mother of Hubble,’ because the last big project she started was the Hubble Space Telescope.”

Plans for what would become the Nancy Grace Roman mission began in 2009, and after a lengthy survey and development process, it’s scheduled to launch in May 2027. The Roman mission is expected to amass 20 petabytes (or 20,000 terabytes) of data containing trillions of individual measurements of stars and galaxies over its five-year mission.

A visualization of the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope. Image: NASA

NASA divisions joining the Roman mission include the Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech/IPAC, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and scientists from various research institutions. Companies working on the mission include Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, L3Harris Technologies, and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging.

Last week, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory hitched a SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket ride to deploy a new Deep Space Optical Communications project aboard the NASA Psyche Mission. The Psyche Mission aims to explore a metal-rich asteroid during a six-year mission.

Benford said the Nancy Grace Roman mission will also use SpaceX to ride into space.

“By and large, NASA contracts to provide launch services for all of our space missions, not necessarily the human ones but all the science ones, and we did the same thing,” he said. “We also awarded our contracts to SpaceX to procure a Falcon Heavy, so we have almost the same launch vehicle that Psyche just used last Friday.”

To prepare for the incredible amount of data that NASA hopes to obtain, Benford said the space agency turned to artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

“There’s all this interesting technology development that has to be done on the back end by people to figure out what you do when you collect data this quickly, Benford said. “It’s a ‘big data’ kind of problem.”

NASA, Benford explained, wanted to examine how it could use machine learning and AI to do things that humans don’t have enough time or bandwidth. In addition to using AI, Benford said NASA is looking to harness more digital tools to make data easily accessible for humans.

Earlier this month, a team of astronomers and scientists turned to generative AI technology to monitor the cosmos for signs of supernovae. The BTSbot project aims to eliminate the human middleman required to shift through tons of data and determine whether a space event was a supernova, allowing scientists to focus more critical research.

Benford said he is optimistic that AI and the Roman mission will open doors to new discoveries and data.

“One of the things that Roman will present us with is new ways of trying to think about the universe,” Benford said, “because the tools we have to develop to process this data are not the tools we’ve had in the past. They have to be new.”

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