AI to help NASA detect life on Mars

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NASA to undertake ‘smart space probe’ with AI to search evidence of life on Mars by 2022/23 

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) will explore life on Mars to identify any signs of alien life on the red planet thanks to a new algorithm developed by scientists from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). 

The AI system will be ready to be deployed in 2022/23 onboard the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosalind Franklin 'ExoMars' rover. While the rover will be tested on the red planet, it has been designed to be utilised in the near future missions to the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which are far away from Earth. 

The AI system will analyse the data on the rover in Mars, and then prioritise and decide what to send back to the Earth, overcoming the barriers of costs and technology while saving time and resources. While lauding her team’s efforts on this breakthrough technology,Victoria Da Poian, lead researcher, NASA GSFC said, ”It means that over time we'll have moved from the idea that humans are involved with nearly everything in space, to the idea that computers are equipped with intelligent systems.” Da Poian and her colleague Eric Lyness, the software lead in the Planetary Environments Lab at NASA GSFC presented the research and way forward at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry Conference, which was virtually conducted from June 21-26, 2020.

Da Poian and Lyness trained the AI system to analyse hundreds of rock samples and thousands of experimental spectra from the Mars Organic Molecule Analyser (MOMA). MOMA is a futuristic mass spectrometer-based device which is able to analyse rock samples for past and present geochemical signatures aka evidence of life. It will land on Mars within the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Rover in 2023. The AI system uses a neural network algorithm to process an unknown compound’s spectrum and rightly categorises it with up to 94% accuracy.

 “We need to prioritize the volume of data we send back to Earth, but we also need to ensure that in doing that we don't throw out vital information. This has led us to begin to develop smart algorithms which can for now help the scientists with their analysis of the sample and their decision-making process regarding subsequent operations, and as a longer-term objective, algorithms that will analyse the data itself will adjust and tune the instruments to run next operations without the ground-in-the-loop and will transmit home only the most interesting data,” said Poian. While from Mars, the system will continue to send most of the data back to Earth, in future, as the later systems travel to the outer solar system, the AI will have more autonomous control over the data being sent back to Earth. 

Lyness concluded by saying, "The mission will face severe time limits. When we will be operating on Mars, samples will only remain in the rover for at most a few weeks before the rover dumps the sample and moves to a new place to drill…In the future, as we move to explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, we will need real-time decisions to be made onsite…it can take 5 to 7hours for a signal from Earth to reach the instruments, so this will not be like controlling a drone, with an instant response. We need to give the instruments the autonomy to make rapid decisions to reach our science goals on our behalf.”


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