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Chandryaan to Mangalyaan: India’s space exploration presents opportunities for indigenous AI and drone technology

Mission Chandrayaan 2, Mangalyaan mission, India space exploration, ISRO, GSLV Mk III launch, Mars mission, science news

By Milind Kulshreshtha

India’s fascination with space exploration has been skyrocketing for more than six decades, with the programme getting more and more ambitious. It is scheduled to reach another milestone in next one week with Chandrayaan-2 mission launch, which includes a land rover deployment on Lunar surface for scientific measurements.

Mission Chandrayaan-2 : Chandrayaan-2 takes off onboard GSLV-Mk III launch planned within this week and Moon landing scheduled by 6th Sept’19. The mission’s main payload comprises of moon Orbiter, a Lunar Lander (Vikram) and the Lunar rover(Pragyan) unit. At the launch, the Orbiter and Lander modules are interfaced mechanically and Lander will separate from the Orbiter and soft land closer to lunar South Pole. Thereafter, the rover shall roll out onto the Lunar surface for carrying out experiments. Instruments are mounted on Lander and Orbiter too for scientific measurements. As per latest update from Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), on 05 July 19, Link checks for lander &orbiter from ground station were in progress and Vehicle phase 3 level 2A checks completed.

The Chandrayaan-2 is the sequel to India's first Lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1 which wassuccessfully completedin October 2008. The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft orbited around the Moon at an altitude of 100 km from the Moon surface to carry out chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon. After six months of such operations, the Orbiter was raised to 200 km where it completed more than 3400 moon orbits,and the mission terminated in Aug’ 2009 after its loss of communication with Earth station.

Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). India’s first interplanetary mission to Mars was launched as part of Mangalyaan mission, on 5th Nov 2013 using PSLV-C25 rocket and space craft was inserted into Martian orbit on 24th Sept 2014 . The next MOM, Mangalyaan-2 too is planned for observing the Martian surface features, morphology, mineralogy and atmosphere.

Also read: Chandrayaan 2 launch date and time: When and where to watch ISRO’s mega event

AI in Space Travel

Any Mars mission, after leaving Earth, requires to endure the Interplanetary space travel for 300 days (to cover approx. 55 million Km) before it’s captured by Mars gravitational field. The challenges of interplanetary mission to cover large distances, shall evolve future technologies essential for such missions since the‘race against distance’ to achieve time superiority is the key to a sustainable inter-planetary mission. The deep space communications and navigation guidance capabilities from Earth largely depends on higher power duplex transceivers onboard the space craft. Similarly, the space probes’ on board housekeeping data and experimental information is sent back to Earth as telemetry packets, received by Earth stations through a Deep space network. This critical communication is many a times delayed for many minutes/hours due to space environment like 'blackout' due solar conjunction or, a ‘whiteout’ geometry may occur where high solar radiation levels disrupt communication with the Earth for about two weeks. Hence, making on board AI module fully autonomous for a ‘decision’ making capability without any Earth based intervention is the way ahead in space exploration. AI can power Navigation, pre-progammed experiments and regular tasks apart from assisting in various manoeuvres. Overall, the on board AI shall complements the efforts of Astronomers, and help humans in sending spacecraft further into space than ever before. India’s own manned Lunar mission being planned within a decade itself is expected to have AI on board for crew support, leaving the astronauts time to focus on other more crucial tasks. During inter-planetary travel, AI powered robots would talk to people and recognize them individually with the help of facial-recognition technology and assist astronauts daily tasks. These robots could be the valuable mission partner during long dark space journeys of years.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for on-Planet Exploration

Presently, our Earth bound UAS and AI industry has seen a phenomenal leap in niche’ areas like Navigation (self-driven cars), Human interaction etc. With its decision-making form of intelligence, India’s future rovers like Lunar Pragyan or Mars rover, would be highly benefited with AI incorporated within their ‘mind’ module to drive these systems safely by detecting obstacles and workout the best route. Unfortunately, the operations of landing, and recovering a Lunar or Mars surface rover by the mother ship for placing them back again in another zone on surface for measurements can be a delicate operation. Such rovers are limited in their long distance movement due to various ground surface restrictions and the hostile surroundings. To overcome such limitations, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is the technology for such on-planetary type explorations. Scientific probes attached onto UAS body can pick up required measurements after being launched from Orbiter mother ship. These can fly over to the specific area and land for measurements. Large areas on celestial body can be covered since UAS have the ability to hop around like a ‘house-fly’. In case landing on the surface is not feasible, then UAS can hover close to the surface, take measurements or winch down a probe into the liquid surface and collect data. This flexibility achieved through an UAS on an external celestial body ensures rich data collection. ISRO has already taken steps towards this space feasibility and has setup a UAS branch at North Eastern Space Applications Centre (NE-SAC) where UAS are being designed and assembled for various applications, like Remote Sensing.

AI for Space Based Information Processing

AI shall be the most valuable tool for processing large amounts of information which is collected by satellites. Soon, AI networks riding on the Satcom up link/down link backbone shall be able to detect characteristics like patterns which humans cannot spot themselves but can be analysed by AI.

Space based measurements of Earth generates humongous data which requires intelligent processing to observe or forecast outcomes like droughts, floods etc. India is an inexpensive information provider in the space frontier. Unfortunately, processing of this information is the bottleneck, and Governmental agencies are unable to leverage the satellite information for purposeful outcomes. For example, the cycle of droughts reach a crisis level, and by the time Government takes a serious note, usually it is too late to act in earnest. Such re-occurring natural events can be left to AI to observe, get trained over the years and to monitor rivers and lakes for timely actionable information. Another example can pertain to crop boosting using temperature maps of India’s fertile areas from space. Through land temperature surveys by satellites, AI can predict accurately water availability for crops growth and crop response to drought. With all the understanding of Global warming etc., it is imperative that space based observations be utilised to evolve AI based solution (using space based Remote Sensing etc.) for ultimate benefit of the farmer community. Such measures can trigger short term and long term measures to establish a modern agriculture sector in India.

PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing) technologies are essential services in today’s world, and these are made available by satellite constellations in Earth’s orbit. Each nation is racing to create their own captive Global Positioning Systems (like NAVIC of India or Russia’s GLONASS) since it plays crucial role in daily mundane activities like booking a cab, aircraft navigation, to launch of Surface to Surface missiles. China’s ambitious Beidou satellite navigation system initially designed for military is now also established as a serious commercial contender by expanding to worldwide coverage services. Any disruption of PNT services or their spoofing by non-friendly service provider nation can jeopardize a nation’s economy. Also, future services like smart phone, driverless car assures a multi-billion annual PNT market and these space based PNT technologies shall be part of many AI based solutions.

(The Author is Artificial Intelligence and C4I expert. Views expressed are personal)