Since 1969 modern space travel has come a long a way. For example, NASA’s Hubble Telescope was sent up to space in 1990 to start taking photographs and give us an insight into a universe beyond our imagination, 2012 saw the discovery of water on Mars, and just last year saw the launch of the first mission to the Sun.
The space industry is buzzing, and shows no signs of slowing down. Thanks to huge leaps in technology, we can now go further into the galaxy to explore uncharted territory, and potentially even uncover new phenomena. With renewed investment in government space programmes and the expansion of viable private space travel, our aspirations and achievements are even beginning to surpass what we once watched in films.
So what’s enabling these new discoveries and achievements?
At the very heart of space travel is data, used for everything from supporting research and development projects to predicating when craft will re-enter orbit. Vast amounts of data are crucial for critical work in mission control, so the supporting systems that look after and process this information need to always be “on”.
IBM’s 7090 mainframe computer might have been the exciting technological breakthrough that helped put the first American in space decades ago, but today’s supercomputers are even more vital for crunching information and propelling space exploration further. From NASA to the ESA (and all the private ventures in-between), supercomputers are a key part of IT systems that enable modern space ventures to go above and beyond.
Taking up miles of physical space, supercomputing systems are capable of processing huge amounts of data in a nanosecond, ensuring scientists have the information they need, when they need it. Often this information is time-critical and needs to be fed in close to real-time from rockets and space stations thousands of miles away to scientists, engineers and mathematicians and vice versa. Ultimately, the safety and security of space vehicles and their passengers is ensured thanks to such powerful machines, which are crammed with the latest cutting edge storage technology. As demand for technologies supporting the advancement of space exploration increases, data must be prioritised and placed at the heart of design and development.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is already extensively used by those at the cutting edge of science and technology across many different space organisations. A NASA AI program recently discovered a new planet 2545 light-years away from earth just by using existing data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope.
The hot and rocky planet was named Kepler-90i and was discovered by machine learning tools, which learned to identify planets by examining recorded signals from exoplanets, or planets from beyond our solar system. One of the biggest benefits of machine learning when it comes to space exploration is that programs can sift through the available data more easily than humans, which increases the chance of finding planets just by looking at datasets.
It’s even thought that AI could be instrumental in locating extraterrestrial life. Rovers can withstand the solar system’s hostile conditions - using AI the rovers will be able to explore icy rivers and fiery caves, withstanding more adverse conditions than a human possibly could.
The Mars 2020 mission will be driven by AI too: the rovers that will explore the planet will be able to drive autonomously and they’ll even be able to self-prioritise their to-do lists to ensure they are maximising their proficiency. The systems the rovers use will also make full-use of AI to conduct experiments to ensure no information is missed as they analyse and explore the red planet. Although scientists need to manage the rovers, AI means that engineers can stand back from the machines and let them gather and analyse information alone, without too much human involvement.
As investment in new technology and AI grows, so too will our potential to explore more of our solar system. Technology adoption in itself has changed in leaps and bounds. Where there used to be stages like early adopters or laggards, those terms don't exist in the same way anymore. Adoption of technology is not just at a faster rate, but universally embraced sooner. As a result, the time between significant space milestones - like the moon landing, the first space station, or the voyager mission - will only decrease thanks to the rapid development and adoption of technology. If technological innovation continues at this rapid pace, it’s not outrageous to think that soon we might be living among the stars, rather than looking up at them.