Are we making spacecraft too autonomous? (design, engineering)

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https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/07...ftware-ai/

EXCERPTS: Software is making it easier than ever to travel through space, but autonomous technologies could backfire if every glitch and error isn’t removed. [...] The SpaceX astronauts may still be involved in decision-making at critical junctures, but much of that function has moved out of their hands.

Does this matter? Software has never played a more critical role in spaceflight. It has made it safer and more efficient, allowing a spacecraft to automatically adjust to changing conditions. According to Darrel Raines, a NASA engineer [...] autonomy is particularly key for areas of “critical response time”—like the ascent of a rocket after liftoff, when a problem might require initiating an abort sequence in just a matter of seconds. Or in instances where the crew might be incapacitated for some reason.

[...] But overrelying on software and autonomous systems in spaceflight creates new opportunities for problems to arise. That’s especially a concern for many of the space industry’s new contenders, who aren’t necessarily used to the kind of aggressive and comprehensive testing needed to weed out problems in software and are still trying to strike a good balance between automation and manual control.

Nowadays, a few errors in over one million lines of code could spell the difference between mission success and mission failure. We saw that late last year, when Boeing’s Starliner capsule (the other vehicle NASA is counting on to send American astronauts into space) failed to make it to the ISS because of a glitch in its internal timer. A human pilot could have overridden the glitch that ended up burning Starliner’s thrusters prematurely. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine remarked soon after Starliner’s problems arose: “Had we had an astronaut on board, we very well may be at the International Space Station right now.”

But it was later revealed that many other errors in the software had not been caught before launch, including one that could have led to the destruction of the spacecraft. And that was something human crew members could easily have overridden. Boeing is certainly no stranger to building and testing spaceflight technologies, so it was a surprise to see the company fail to catch these problems...

[...] Space, however, is a unique environment to test for. The conditions a spacecraft will encounter aren’t easy to emulate on the ground. ... This, says Luke Schreier, is why AI is such a big deal in spaceflight nowadays—you can develop an autonomous system that is capable of anticipating those conditions, rather than requiring the conditions to be learned during a specific simulation. “You couldn’t possibly simulate on your own all the corner cases of the new hardware you’re designing,” he says. So for some groups, testing software isn’t just a matter of finding and fixing errors in the code; it’s also a way to train AI-driven software... (MORE - details, 3 pages)
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