Paris, April 30 : Artificial intelligence (AI) being used at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany is giving a powerful boost to ESA's (European Space Agency) Mars Express as it searches for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet.
Since January 2005, Mars Express has been using its sophisticated instruments to study the atmosphere, surface and subsurface of Mars, confirming the presence of water and looking for other signatures of life on and below the Red Planet's rocky terrain.
The spacecraft generates huge volumes of scientific data, which must be downloaded to Earth at the right time and in the correct sequence, otherwise data packets can be permanently lost when the limited on-board memory is overwritten by newly collected data.
Traditionally, data downloading was managed using human-operated scheduling software to generate command sequences sent to Mars Express, telling it when to dump specific data packets.
"This is tedious, time-consuming and never really eliminated the occasional loss - forever - of valuable science data," said Alessandro Donati, Head of the Advanced Mission Concepts and Technologies Office at ESA's Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany.
But since 2005, AI researchers at Italy's Institute for Cognitive Science and Technology (ISTC-CNR) led by Dr Amedeo Cesta and mission planners and computer scientists at ESOC have been developing a solution to the complex Mars Express scheduling problem by applying artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to the problem.
These are similar to those used to solve scheduling and optimisation problems faced by airlines, shipping companies and large construction projects.
The result of this work is a new 'smart' tool, dubbed MEXAR2 ('Mars Express AI Tool'), which has successfully passed initial testing and validation and is now an integral part of the Mars Express mission planning system.
MEXAR2 works by considering the variables that affect data downloading - including the overall science observation schedule for all Mars Express instruments - and then intelligently projecting which on-board data packets might be later lost due to memory conflicts.
It then optimises the data download schedule and generates the commands needed to implement the download.
"With MEXAR2, any loss of stored data packets has been largely eliminated," said Fred Jansen, ESA's mission manager for Mars Express.
MEXAR2 has reduced the mission planning team's workload considerably - by 50 percent compared to the old manual method - for generating workable downlink plans. And because it optimises bandwidth used to receive data on Earth, we have been able to free expensive ground station time for other missions," said Michel Denis, Mars Express Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESOC.