Global experts join forces on £1.5M AI Space Sustainability project

Earth and Space

A pioneering international collaboration is exploring how Artificial Intelligence can be harnessed to improve space operations, safety and sustainability.

The University of Strathclyde’s Aerospace Centre for Excellence is leading the £1.5M initiative to accelerate the development of AI technologies.

Along with the University of Arizona, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Waterloo in Canada, The Alan Turing Institute and commercial space companies, LMO and GMV in the UK, Nominal Systems in Australia and Columbiad in Canada, researchers will develop cutting-edge technologies to advance global space capabilities.

Virtual institute

The project will accelerate the development of AI technologies from conception, at early technology readiness levels, to adoption in the space sector. The partnership will also pave the way for the creation of a new virtual Institute on AI for Space Safety & Sustainability which it is hoped will attract additional funding to continue the work.

The year-long project comes under the second phase of the £20 million International Bilateral Fund investments by the UK Space Agency, which will help UK organisations link up with global experts.

One of the biggest challenges facing the sector is congestion created by space debris - defunct man-made objects in space which no longer serve a useful function.

According to the UK Space Agency, millions of these space objects are orbiting the planet – almost 37,000 measuring larger than 10cm and an estimated 130 million measuring less than one cm.

Paint flecks

The human-deposited mass ranges from defunct satellites, to smaller items, such as discarded astronaut’s toothbrushes and even flecks of paint.

One of the key aims of the ‘AI4 Space Safety and Sustainability’ project will be to use machine learning, a form of AI, to help predict the motion of space objects, reducing the risk of collisions and improving space flight safety.

Project lead, Professor Massimiliano Vasile, Director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at Strathclyde, said: “The sustainability of the use of space is essential to enable any future space activity. The sector is based on a model that isn’t sustainable because we keep on launching materials into space – meaning there is a constant drain we take from Earth.

“Eventually nothing will be able to use space and it will be so crowded you can’t launch anything.”

Professor Vasile says that the collaboration, which also involves the Centre for Signal & Image Processing (CeSIP) at Strathclyde, will demonstrate different uses of AI, including the behavioural analysis of space objects - understanding what we are looking at when we observe the sky, what the object is and what it is doing.

He added: “AI is good at understanding patterns and classifying what you’re observing.

A key goal is to develop robust and reliable AI systems for space safety. Everything that happens in space has uncertainty attached so systems need to be trustworthy.

“We want to increase automation to help avoid collisions – a little bit like self-driving cars.

“We also want to use AI to determine the impact on the space environment to allow for informed decisions. When countries decide on policies to licence new missions they need to understand the global impact of that mission on the space environment – insurance companies also need to understand the global impact to quantify how risky it is

“Our project will demonstrate how we can work together with other countries across borders.”

Sustainable space

Chief Commercial Officer at the University of Strathclyde, Gillian Docherty, said: “This project is a great example of the University’s commitment to finding solutions to such pressing global issues as sustainable space development.”

Professor Anu Ojha, Director of Championing Space at the UK Space Agency, said: “Our International Bilateral Fund bolsters international collaboration that harnesses the UK’s national expertise, supports new space capabilities and catalyses investment. Supporting innovative projects on new technology like AI is an opportunity to showcase the UK as a spacefaring nation, whilst enhancing the wider UK space sector, creating jobs and generating further investment.”