Satellites - marvelous, sophisticated machines orbiting planetary bodies - are operated like the toaster on your kitchen counter. They need constant human supervision. If there is a problem on board, they stop their scientific operation till a human operator intervenes. The human operator, in his turn, has to manually analyse thousands of parameters, procedures and lists to come up with a solution. In the worst case, if the problem persists, the spacecraft adds to the ever-expanding space junkyard.
Systems aboard spacecraft currently only have primitive intelligence because of the harsh conditions hardware has to be able to survive in space - from radiation to extreme temperatures. Space-graded hardware capable of complex, intelligent tasks will take years of development and testing. In the meanwhile, with the number of spacecraft orbiting the Earth set to triple within the next five years and plans for mega-constellations of satellites which are hundreds strong, this lack of sophistication will compound the problem of increasing space junk.
To avoid this, our best bet is to develop a more complex and intuitive tool on ground which meets operators’ needs. This in itself requires substantial investment in IT and data infrastructure - not a small ask! If things stay as they are right now, with intelligence neither on ground nor in space, managing missions anywhere in space will continue being inefficient and costing a fortune in terms of operator working hours.
About Alexandra Wander
Alexandra Wander, a space engineer, AI researcher and winner of the Amelia Earhart Fellowship from Zonta International is inspired by solving these problems. She envisions a future in which not only the ground systems and procedures, but also those on board spacecraft are intelligent and more sophisticated. A future in which this intelligence will make operating spacecraft easier, intuitive and more efficient while at the same time, rightfully expired satellites would be disposed of properly.