Planet of the Robots: How Artificial Intelligence is taking over a nearby planet

Whether Oumuamua is an Alien spacecraft or not is still debatable, and more data is required before we can have any certainty. Until then, let’s keep on exploring our solar system, one planet at a time


You might be surprised to learn that very close to us, there exists a planet governed by robots. No human beings live over there. The population is still relatively small, with only five robots on it, but it is growing steadily. This location is none other than our sister planet Mars.

In reality, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent a total of seven rovers to the red planet since 1971, but two of them never completed their journey. Out of the other 5, Sojourner lost communication three months after landing (1997), Spirit worked for six years (till 2010), but its wheels got trapped in sand, and Opportunity entered into hibernation (2018) due to a bad dust storm. The last two, Curiosity (2012) and Perseverance (2021), are still in operation.

The Perseverance rover is, without doubt, the most advanced of the lot and uses sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) even though its processor is less powerful than your mobile phone!

The reason for choosing a 90s processor is because Mars’ atmosphere offers far less protection from harmful radiation and charged particles than Earth’s atmosphere. Using an older and less complicated chip can reduce the chances of things going wrong. However, this doesn’t stop Perseverance from doing some pretty incredible stuff.

First of all, it managed to fly a 300-million-mile voyage from Earth. The landing is the most crucial part, so much so that they call it “the 7 minutes of terror”. The touchdown was dangerous because of the cliffs and sand-dunes located in the landing spot’s vicinity; however, the AI-enabled Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) came to the rescue. Its onboard camera took several images of the descent; the AI recognised the spacecraft’s location and steered it towards a safe landing spot. The TRN managed to land Perseverance within less than 40 meters of the agreed landing site. Such an AI was critical because, in those 7 minutes, the spacecraft is on its own, and any corrective commands sent from Planet Earth would not reach it in time (since it can take up to 40 minutes).

AI will help Perseverance in its scientific mission too. The Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science system (AEGIS) is an intelligent targeting software that autonomously spots curious rocks. It then allows scientists to fire a powerful laser to any position within a seven-meter radius, which vaporises part of the surface and uses the ChemCam or SuperCam camera to analyse their elemental composition.

The latest Mars rover is also a self-driving vehicle. The AI can continuously drive the rover around the planet while taking pictures, performing experiments and avoiding obstacles. Another exciting feature of this new rover is the possibility of drilling in the Martian surface, collecting the soil, and placing the samples inside tubes. The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) will then collect these tubes around 2030 and launch them back to Earth.

Perseverance also boasts a small drone helicopter called Ingenuity. It can fly up to 5 meters above ground for up to 90 seconds per flight and as far as 50 meters away. Although its flights will be well-scripted, it can use autonomous control, thus allowing the AI to pilot it.

Even though the “planet of the Robots” is not an Alien contact, we might have already encountered some real Aliens in 2017. Back then, a rogue comet named Oumuamua (or scout) was detected passing close to Earth.

Nothing strange so far, but on the 27th of June 2018, astronomers noticed a movement that did not match their calculations. At first, they thought that gasses evaporated from the object when it moved closer to the sun, but scientists later disproved this theory. There have been various theories over the years, but none of them seems to be holding water.

In 2018, the chairman of Harvard’s Astronomy Department published a paper claiming that after careful mathematical analysis; Oumuamua could be a light sail of artificial origins. Such sails use sunlight exerted on large mirrors to push the object through space. Humans already used a light sail in 2010 when they sent the IKAROS spacecraft to Venus.

Whether Oumuamua is an Alien spacecraft or not is still debatable, and more data is required before we can have any certainty. Until then, let’s keep on exploring our solar system, one planet at a time.

What’s for sure is that to achieve more ambitious space missions, we need AI to navigate our spacecraft through space. Autonomous vehicles will then analyse alien worlds and transmit the information back to Earth. Using technology as our extended arm, we can manage to venture where no man has gone before and beyond.

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