Working Toward an Autonomous Future Starts Now for NASA, Partners

Lunar Gateway concept. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 15 years, will there be robots building large structures, spacecraft fixing themselves and telescopes making decisions about what to study next? The Science and Technology Partnership Forum – an interagency collaboration with principal partners NASA, the U.S. Space Force and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office – is working to answer questions like these to turn the possibilities into reality.

During the forum’s most recent meeting, held virtually on March 26, 2020, participants discussed trusted autonomy. Systems that use trusted autonomy are capable of performing tasks, sensing and responding appropriately to their environments and fixing any problems experienced – all with reduced or no human input. While NASA has been working on autonomous and semi-autonomous systems for years, maturing the trust factor to enable systems to autonomously perform mission-critical tasks will be key to the future.

“Trusted autonomy is a critical technology area necessary for the future of human and robotic space exploration,” said NASA Chief Technologist Douglas Terrier at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Through the Artemis program, American astronauts will go back to the Moon and then on to explore Mars. For these audacious undertakings, and to maintain our leadership in space, we will need to leverage trusted autonomy.”

During the recent meeting, the interagency team discussed progress in understanding where gaps exist in trusted autonomy technology and policy. More than three-dozen gaps were identified and are now being categorized, refined and prioritized. Ongoing analyses and discussions help the team prioritize the challenges and develop plans to overcome them. One gap being analyzed is the “trust” factor in trusted autonomy.

“Trust is a critical aspect of human and machine teaming. We need to know that a space system will do what it is supposed to with a high degree of confidence. Without sufficient trust, autonomous systems won’t be able to transition to operations.” said Joel Mozer, United States Space Force’s chief scientist in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Another gap being studied is more rigorous testing on Earth to ensure that the spacecraft can operate without human input in the harsh radiation environment of space, sometimes for years at a time. Validation and verification of the systems takes place in chambers that mimic the extreme environments of space and in software labs that simulate the mission and push the systems to their limits. Once ground testing is successfully accomplished, missions in space that use trusted autonomy can proceed.

Researchers also note the importance of having standards across the industry. Standards set rules and allow government agencies, commercial companies and academic institutions to understand how precisely their systems are performing.

“Policies are needed to allow for the development and flight of spacecraft that primarily use trusted autonomy due to the increased risk of having less human input during spacecraft operations,” said Erica Rodgers, the Science and Technology Partnership lead in NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist.

While analyzing gaps, the forum team also is developing theoretical missions – called use cases – that evaluate how trusted autonomy will be used, what parts of the technology currently exist, what parts are missing and what problems the missions may experience.

“Use cases define objectives, constraints and metrics within specific mission situations,” said Rodgers. “The technology gaps are mapped to the use cases and evaluated to determine programmatic and enduring recommendations for future technology developments.”

The value of use cases does not end there, though.

“Use cases are definitely very valuable analysis and technology transition tools. What we’re learning is that we have shared opportunities to work together and advance trusted autonomy of space systems,” said Lt. Col. Steve Lewis, deputy chief scientist at the United States Space Force in Colorado Springs.

As NASA and the spaceflight industry build towards an autonomous future, projects are already underway that use and will demonstrate autonomy. Crews on the International Space Station are performing tests that will help future astronauts in deep space be more autonomous from the ground. NASA’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 1 mission (OSAM-1, which was previously referred to as Restore-L) is enabled by autonomous systems for safely rendezvousing and grappling with another satellite in space.

The ultimate goal of the Science and Technology Partnership Forum is to develop interagency projects that will leverage the ideas and resources of the different agencies to fill one or more of the technology gaps.

“Through this partnership space-faring agencies are delivering stronger solutions to difficult problems at reduced costs to the taxpayer than would be possible if each agency attempted to solve these challenges on their own,” said Terrier. 

Trusted autonomy is one of many topics addressed by the Science and Technology Partnership Forum.

To learn more about the Science and Technology Partnership Forum, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/st_partnership.html