Space exploration has taken monumental leaps, but many of our tools are still tethered to Earth for data and instructions. As satellites move further from Earth, NASA must send information further into deep space to reach them. As the distance grows, sending transmissions takes more and more time. But satellites must receive communication swiftly, in order to respond to threats like space debris and opportunities to collect data. Enabling a satellite to use AI and fuzzy logic, working over a swiftly-responding blockchain network, would be of great benefit, essentially allowing the satellite to "think" for itself in some cases.
In late 2017, NASA awarded a three-year grant worth $330,000 (with an action obligation of $224,152) to the University of Akron for research into a "resilient networking and computing paradigm" (RNCP) that makes use of "decentralized computing infrastructure." The proposed system would rely on such technologies as the Ethereum blockchain and an AI scheme involving "deep learning techniques and fuzzy logic methods."
Among the goals of the program are measures to protect NASA vehicles from collisions with space junk orbiting the earth, which can damage or completely incapacitate them, and the processing of highly complex data.
At the helm of the research project is Dr. Jin Wei (sometimes credited as Jin Kocsis or Jin Wei Kocsis), an assistant professor with the University of Akron's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
A write-up published by the Collier Report of US Government Spending, which shares a significant amount of language with a project summary ostensibly penned by Wei, describes plans to develop a "data-driven resilient and cognitive networking management architecture." Wei's team will also conduct research into decentralized computing mechanisms that could prove instrumental in processing "the massive amount of high-dimensional data" often collected by NASA spacecraft.
A description of the project on the university's news website states that Wei's work will "advance cognitive communications for NASA science and exploration by developing [an RNCP] that will improve the efficiency of space communications."
Elsewhere, Wei herself is quoted as saying that she hopes "to develop technology that can recognize environmental threats and avoid them" – threats which include manmade debris in outer space.
If the research proves fruitful, Wei's RNCP may enable NASA spacecraft to operate more autonomously than they do today, requiring less thorough instruction from mission control in order to undertake some tasks and thus freeing up scientists on the ground to dedicate more of their attention to other matters. Today, the organization's vessels are entirely reliant on humans for this kind of guidance. Wei's work could eventually help NASA move its fleet of satellites further from the planet.
The allocation, which represents one of several Early Career Faculty efforts within NASA's Space Technology Research Grants (STRG) program, was issued through the government body's Shared Services Center. The STRG's stated goal is to "accelerate the development of space technologies in their earliest stages to enable future systems capabilities and missions for NASA, other government agencies and the commercial space sector."