Artificial Intelligence in Space – USC’s Information Sciences Institute is on a Mission

by Julia Cohen

Danny Olivas

John Daniel “Danny” Olivas, former NASA astronaut and current member of the NASA Advisory Council, has joined the staff of the Visual Intelligence and Multimedia Analytics Laboratory (VIMAL) of USC’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) as Co-Director for AI Initiatives in Space.

Olivas brings considerable experience to VIMAL, ISI and USC. A veteran of space shuttle missions in 2007 and 2009, he is the recipient of two NASA Space Flight Medals and the NASA Exceptional Service and Exceptional Achievement Medals. Olivas completed five space walks totaling over 34 hours outside of the International Space Station. His expertise in space is rivaled only by his passion for it, and he brings both to his new role.

Olivas said, “I am excited about the opportunity to help expand USC’s footprint in space, for researchers and students alike.”

The Birth of a Partnership

VIMAL – which is led by Wael AbdAlmageed, research director at ISI and research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering – has a noble and straight-forward mission: “to empower students to use artificial intelligence to make the world a better place, one day at a time.” With Olivas on the team, VIMAL is now able to look beyond Earth to do this.

Olivas and AbdAlmageed met in July 2022, when they were both invited to Renaissance Weekend, a prestigious, non-partisan, invite-only retreat for innovative thinkers across disciplines held this year in Banff,Canada. They quickly realized they had a lot in common. AbdAlmageed said, “Danny [Olivas] and I come from very similar mindsets and backgrounds. We believe in working hard on hard problems, without giving up, for a long period of time. We believe that is enough to make things happen.”

Interested in each others’ area of expertise, the two discussed how to harness their collective grit and work together. A month later, Olivas visited ISI for the day to learn about VIMAL and ISI, and present his thoughts on opportunities for AI in space.  

Out of This World Climate Data

Olivas’ astronaut background and exposure to space provides a valuable new perspective on new areas for data analysis. “Since the beginning of the [NASA] program, NASA has produced more data than has been analyzed,” he noted. He added that this data is ripe for analysis through artificial intelligence and machine learning.

One application is climate, which AbdAlmageed called an “area of growth for VIMAL.”

“NASA has instruments that can see things like water vapor in the upper atmosphere,” Olivas said. “All these kinds of things can not only be analyzed in their individual silos of monitoring, but you can now start to integrate data across the different instruments to build a much more robust picture of how climate changes are affecting a certain region.”

Ozone and CO2 in the atmosphere, temperature trends across the planet, drought prediction, sea level detection, deforestation, planet population changes — these are just some of the areas where NASA has useful historical data, according to Olivas.

“This data has been available by NASA for many, many years,” he added, “and (they) provide an opportunity to take pieces of this information and start to integrate them together and allow computational technologies to take over where human beings have had to digest this information in the past, to try to make sense of it.”

Robotics and Rovers

As NASA prepares for a future in which humans will travel to Mars, new and exciting AI applications will emerge. “There are some specific robotic applications that are very unique to NASA’s space program,” Olivas said. For example, a robot that can check the mood of an astronaut based on their facial expressions or voice intonations — something that will be increasingly important for mental health as missions extend from months to years with Mars exploration. 

Exploration rovers are another area where Olivas sees room for more AI, again, with Mars as the example: “It takes about twenty minutes to be able to send a command from Earth to Mars. By the time you get the photograph that your rover is marching over a cliff, it’s probably the wrong time to send the command to stop moving. So you want to have more intelligence being built on the platform to allow the rover to make decisions for itself.”

But First: Space Junk

Climate data, robots and rovers — these are areas Olivas might take VIMAL in the future. However, the first problem Olivas and AbdAlmageed plan on tackling is trash, specifically orbital debris. 

NASA defines orbital debris as any non-functional human-made object in orbit around the Earth. Think: spacecraft, satellites, rockets or what you’d get if any of those collided or exploded. Debris ranges in size from sub-microns all the way to several meters — from a paint chip to a school bus — with hundreds of thousands of estimated pieces orbiting Earth.

The trouble comes from the fact that this debris travels at orbital velocities that are dangerous to NASA’s missions — picture that paint chip or school bus traveling at 16,000 mph! Olivas said, “it’s that hyper-velocity impact that causes all sorts of problems, not only with the space station or human spacecraft, but also with satellite technology.” It is a serious threat to astronauts, spacecraft and space exploration in general.

The VIMAL team will be looking at ways to use their sensing, computer vision and AI expertise to identify pieces of debris and track them for long periods of time as they orbit Earth.

USC’s Legacy of Space Innovation

Olivas extends a strong legacy of innovation in space exploration at USC. He joins fellow former NASA astronauts Paul Ronney and Garrett Reisman, who also serve as faculty at USC Viterbi, which is one of a core group of top schools with a distinct astronautical program. This won’t be the first time Olivas and Reisman have worked together, they were classmates in the NASA astronaut program.

To date, school researchers have created innovations in spacecraft propulsion, space science, space environment, space communications, satellites and materials. Astronaut Neil Armstrong was a USC Viterbi alumnus, and the school has a dedicated Space Engineering Research Center at ISI. 

USC Viterbi maintains strong connections with pioneering space organizations and alumni who design and build rockets and space launchers, communications and direct broadcasting satellites, navigational systems, crewed space vehicles and planetary probes.

On a Mission to Collaborate

“At the end of the day, space is a human endeavor,” said Olivas, who pointed out that part of being an astronaut involves looking out for one another. He seemed impressed by this aspect of the work done by VIMAL.

“One thing that I’ve come to appreciate at VIMAL is the inclusive nature of the collaborations; it is really inspirational,” he said.

AbdAlmageed has very intentionally fostered the collaborative environment of VIMAL. “I’m proud that we’ve created a culture in the lab where everybody feels a sense of ownership and partnership.” He continued, “I couldn’t have done something like hire Danny [Olivas] without the significant contributions of everyone in VIMAL who do the work day in and day out. This was a team effort. I am also very grateful to Dr. Craig Knoblock, ISI Executive Director, for supporting our ambitious initiatives and pursuits.”

Olivas certainly seems excited to join the team, “I look forward to sharing, learning and seeing where those opportunities might be with VIMAL,” concluded the astronaut.

Published on October 3rd, 2022

Last updated on October 3rd, 2022