There’s no use launching a spacecraft to explore a far-off location if you can’t maintain reliable communication with it. NASA’s missions have traditionally relied on complicated human-controlled radio systems, but the agency is now investigating artificial intelligence to control its radios. These so-called “cognitive radios” could keep space networks up and running with increased efficiency and free up humans for more useful tasks.
NASA explains the value of cognitive radio in terms that might be more familiar. NASA says it’s similar to the situation on Earth with a crowded electromagnetic spectrum. Companies and industries are restricted to certain segments of the airwaves, but there are some “white spaces” that anyone can use as long as there’s no licensed activity on it. However, you need to move to another white space if a licensed user comes online.
The situation is similar ins space, but instead of licensed users, the problem is congestion from naturally occurring radio sources. Space weather, radiation from the sun, and other objects can interfere with communications, requiring the spacecraft and ground station to switch over to another part of the spectrum. Usually, it’s up to people to take measurements and make radio changes when needed. A cognitive radio may be able to do that on its own.
The project is underway at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. There, scientists are exploring ways that a spacecraft’s radio could adapt to the changing nature of space weather by altering its transmission frequency or canceling out distortions with the aid of machine learning. Researchers also see future radios being smart enough to shut down temporarily to avoid damage during severe waves of radiation.
The goal of cognitive radio design is to make things easier for human controllers. A probe that can analyze and respond to the environment in space will always be faster than a person trying to do that from millions of miles away. A cognitive radio could suggest ground station downlink settings a few hours in advance, rather than forcing people to make scheduling guesses a few weeks ahead of time. The efficiency gains could result in more science and less wasted time.
There is currently a Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Testbed module on the International Space Station. This device contains three software-defined radios, allowing researchers to configure the device and test new cognitive models. SCaN was delivered to the ISS in 2013, but the research is finally nearing the point cognitive radio tech could be included in the plans for upcoming missions.
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