Trip to Mars requires intelligence

At the urging of President Bush, American astronauts may one day set foot on Mars. However, such an ambitious feat won't be possible without the aid of improved artificial intelligence, according to technology experts.

On Jan. 14, the President outlined his space exploration goals, which include conducting manned missions to Mars. At a time when NASA's popularity is soaring due to the success of Spirit, the Mars exploration rover, President Bush's space goals have been met with great fanfare by space enthusiasts.

In reality, sending astronauts to the Red Planet is still a distant reality.

Aside from building a space vehicle capable of sustaining life on the long journey to and from Mars, advanced artificial intelligence systems must be present on the mission, according to David Kortenkamp, a senior scientist with Metrica Inc., a contractor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Artificial intelligence is the

science of making computers behave like humans.

"It's not only feasible, it's necessary to make that happen," Kortenkamp said. "In Bush's vision, we see the need for robots, computers and humans to work very closely together to accomplish the tasks."

He expects artificial intelligence to improve dramatically during Bush's timeframe for manned expeditions. But that's not to say the technology will run the show, as envisioned in such science fiction classics as "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"What we'll have are very specialized applications that do certain jobs and do them well," he said. "We see [artificial intelligence] more as a tool to accomplish the mission, rather than a completely intelligent control element that's in charge of the mission."

One reason artificial intelligence is necessary, though, is because of the immense distance that astronauts must cover. A one-way journey to Mars is more than 300 million miles and would last approximately six months with current rocket technology.

Onboard artificial intelligence systems could monitor life support systems and control the supply of air and water necessary to keep astronauts alive and monitor the recycling systems that replenish these supplies.

Having artificial intelligence systems perform these tasks would free up valuable time

for the astronauts to conduct

mission-specific activities.

The lengthy lag time between sending signals on Earth and receiving them in space is another reason for having artificial intelligence onboard. Kortenkamp compares this to a person on Earth talking on a wireless phone to someone on Mars. After the Earth-bound person said hello, the person on Mars wouldn't hear it until roughly 10 minutes later, depending on where the planets are in their orbits.

Such a delay would make it difficult for controllers on Earth to react to problems on the space vehicle or Mars space habitat in a timely manner. So intelligent self-healing computer systems become crucial to mission success.

"To have systems actually robust enough to keep humans alive and bring them back, we're going to need much more sophisticated and high powered computers," said Mike Deliman, professional services member of the technical staff at Wind River International, the company that provides the VxWorks operating system for the Spirit rover.

Deliman said that future missions must have computer systems that not only detect errors, such as a bad sector of RAM, but also have the ability to map around them so the operating system can continue to run.

Autonomous computer systems, those that can operate independent of human control, have been used successfully in previous space missions, though at a smaller scale than would be necessary for a Mars trip.

Rather than simply following preprogrammed commands, these systems would be able to assess a situation and decide

the best course of action without human input.

The Deep Space One spacecraft, which flew in 1999, tested the use of remote agent technology to control the probe for one week. This marked the first time artificial intelligence had been used in space with autonomous capability.

Barney Pell, an architect of the Remote Agent and Technical Area Manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in Calif., stresses the importance of artificial intelligence not only in-flight, but on the Martian surface as well.

He lists several future uses for artificial intelligence, including robotic help in building infrastructures, maintaining life-support systems within the surface habitat, coordinating the in-space communications network and operating knowledge management systems.

"I think by 2020 we're really going to be pretty excited about the robots and the AI systems that we can field for the astronauts," Pell said. "I want to say that the sky's the limit."


Space agenda

President Bush announced his space exploration goals Jan. 14. His agenda includes a new space vehicle to return American astronauts to the moon as early as 2015.

Highlights of Bush's space exploration goals:

Completing work on the International Space Station by 2015.

Developing and testing a new manned space vehicle, called the crew exploration vehicle, by 2008 and conducting the first manned mission by 2014.

Returning astronauts to the moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020.

Using the moon as a steppingstone for human missions to Mars and worlds beyond.

Allocating $11 billion in funding for exploration over the next five years, which includes requesting an additional $1 billion in fiscal 2005.


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