Apr 26, 2024 - Science

Space industry races to put AI in orbit

Illustration of binary code with some zeroes replaced by planet Earth images, all placed on a starry space background.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A raft of startups, companies and governments are trying to develop new chips to unlock AI's power in space.

Why it matters: The harsh conditions of space have so far limited the use of AI on board satellites that play a critical role in the space economy.

  • AI could help fuel growth in the space industry, which some predict will be worth as much as $1.8 trillion by 2035 — on par with the semiconductor industry.

But right now the space industry is in "the Dark Ages," says former NASA administrator Dan Goldin. "Instead of doing edge computing, it is done in data centers and mission control."

  • "If we want to have a real space industry, not a foo foo space industry, we've got to put AI up there," he says.

The big picture: AI and machine learning algorithms have for years helped to analyze astronomical data, optimize operations, control satellites and rovers and other space-related tasks.

  • Some satellites can process data on board with AI, but for the most part, they download it to Earth for analysis — a process limited by available, and expensive, bandwidth.
  • But the number of satellites in space and the sensors they carry is multiplying fast, generating more data and increasing the risk that satellites could collide with one another or dangerous space debris.

There are going to be "tens of thousands of satellites orbiting Earth and [we] can't possibly count on human intervention for them to avoid each other, to pair up with each other or to de-orbit," says Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly Aerospace.

  • Putting AI devices on satellites could give them more autonomy to navigate using data they collect in real time.
  • On-board AI processing can also help researchers better leverage the streams of data satellites collect to take the pulse of Earth's forests and fields, monitor methane emissions, and track illegal fishing and other activities and events.
  • "Sensor data collection is growing exponentially, not only on Earth, but in space, whereas communication downlink technology is only growing linearly," says Paul Quintana of Untether AI. "You can't send all the data from space down anymore. You have to do on-orbit processing."

Zoom out: Space presents a few big challenges for computing.

  • Radiation — a cumulative dose or an acute one — can fry digital circuits. The threat of potential space-based weapons that use radiation to jam satellites is adding to the pressure to develop systems that can withstand radiation.
  • The vacuum of space makes it difficult to dissipate the heat generated by processors.
  • Chips have to be able to work with electronics at a range of temperatures from launch to orbit.

There's also limited power in space.

  • A GPU in a data center on Earth has one kilowatt of power available to it versus less than one watt for an entire satellite in space, says Brandon Lucia, CEO and co-founder of Efficient and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Other larger Cubesats have up to about 20 watts available to them but in general it is "100 to 1000 times less power than a single GPU that you'd have in a data center," Lucia says.
  • Adding batteries and solar panels adds weight, which comes at a cost in space.

"Whenever you have technologies converging, it takes a while to build it out," says Tony Trinh, who leads advanced packaging technologies at Mercury Systems, one of a handful of places in the U.S. with facilities to package and test microelectronic devices for space.

Zoom in: Engineers are taking a range of approaches to tackling these problems.

  • Untether, which is focused on being able to process large amounts of visual data, is making a chip that combines processors and memory. The design reduces how much data has to be moved in and out of the device, allowing it to get more operations with minimum power, the company says.
  • Efficient is developing a chip that can handle different types of computation — it can process other data for the satellite along with machine learning models. Lucia says it uses up to 100 times less energy to run the same program compared to a CPU off the market.
  • Firefly offers a digital platform that can support data processing in real time in orbit. The company expects to launch a test of the platform for autonomous AI-enabled satellite navigation later this year.
  • Still others are working on analog approaches, which are energy-efficient but noisier and prone to errors. EnCharge AI is using capacitors instead of semiconductors "to make analog very precise, robust and scalable," says company co-founder and Princeton engineering professor Naveen Verma.

Between the lines: Chips in space today are decades-old technology. "Anytime you're designing a chip today [it's] for applications 20, 30, 40 years from now," says Heather Pringle, CEO of the Space Foundation and former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

  • She points to Voyager 1, a spacecraft that's now more than 15 billion miles from Earth running on nearly 50-year-old technology developed around the time when Atari was state-of-the-art.
  • Voyager lost communication with Earth late last year, but engineers recently deployed a software fix and were able to re-establish contact.
  • The best AI-enabled chips "should be reconfigurable so we can deploy new algorithms very quickly," Kiruthika Devaraj, VP of avionics and spacecraft Technology at satellite company Planet, wrote in an email.

The bottom line: "We have launch vehicles, launch towers, spacecraft, onboard propulsion and antennas, and in the end, it comes down to the damn semiconductor," Goldin says.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Mercury Systems and add details about the company as well as the different approaches being taken.

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