Lockheed Martin identified key technologies that will transform the space sector in its report, "Destination: Space 2050." Credit: Lockheed Martin Destination Space: 2050 YouTube screenshot

LOS ANGELES – Artificial intelligence, quantum computing and nuclear power are among the key technologies Lockheed Martin sees as important for future space missions.

Through a project called Destination: Space 2050, Lockheed Martin executives are exploring, for example, how AI could assist scientific exploration of locations where communications with remote sensors would be disrupted by high latency.

In that type of environment, “you really can’t interact with the robotic sensors,” David Lackner, Lockheed Martin senior manager strategy and business development, said during a June 28 webinar. “You have to have something that is super autonomous that can deal with unknown unknowns. We’ve got some really interesting causal autonomy tools that … allow the AI to be super smart about running into something that it hasn’t encountered before.”

AI also has important applications for remote-sensing data, said Aura Roy, Lockheed Martin deputy program manager for Multi-slit Solar Explorer mission, known as MUSE.

Data gathered by hundreds or thousands of satellites traveling in different orbits could provide a “vast amount of information which would be beyond the ability of any number of human operators to parse through,” Roy said. “The goal is to use AI to determine truly optimal and trusted decisions from that raw data,” which may not be intuituve.

In the future, “we will need to rely on a AI to augment human decision makers at all levels of command with advanced AI data processing and course-of-action generation that will support all types of operations,” Roy said.

Quantum Computing

In addition, Lockheed Martin’s Space 2050 report focuses on quantum computing, quantum communications and quantum remote sensing, technologies.

“That computing infrastructure utilizing quantum will be there for us in the 2050 timeframe,” Lackner said.

As a result, Lockheed Martin is developing “quantum algorithms to make use of quantum computers, quantum remote sensing and quantum communications,” Lackner said. “Specific space applications of quantum are going to be super enabling for what we want to do.”

Nuclear Power, Crew Habitats and Mobility

Advancements in power and propulsion, including nuclear technologies, “are going to be absolutely critical in terms of dramatically improving the types of missions that you can do and the types of science that you can collect,” said Kate Watts, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of Mission Strategy and Advanced Capabilities for Human and Scientific Exploration. “Think high-power generation, dramatically improved ISP related to propulsion, so you have more maneuverability” or the ability to reach distant locations more quickly.

By 2050 more people will be traveling to low-Earth orbit as well as to the moon or Mars, which will create demand for habitats and vehicles to move around the lunar surface.

“When you’re on other worlds, you need to be able to move around, modify things, change the surface as needed,” Watts said. “You need to give the crew autonomy to manage science with machines that have capability like they do here on Earth.”

Lunar Commercial Opportunities

By 2050, “I think we’ll see regular commercial delivery services from the Earth to the moon and back for both cargo or people,” said Crescent Space CEO Joe Landon. Lockheed Martin established Crescent Space earlier this year to provide lunar communications and navigation services.

On the lunar surface, crews will “be able to find, extract and process valuable resources to create fuel and to sustain life and support human operations,” Landon said.

“Every space mission today has to be completely self sufficient, has to bring everything you need with you and account for every contingency,” Landon said. “So, even the smallest missions or capabilities end up being very complex and costly.”

To achieve Lockheed Martin’s Space 2050 vision, new infrastructure including computational capacity in cislunar space will be needed.

Providing access to lunar cloud computing would enable both governments and private actors to play a larger economic role in space. Instead of purchasing large assets and then having to maintain them, buyers would instead be able to buy capabilities as needed, Lackner said.

Lockheed Martin selected 2050 as a goal for its technology report because that timeframe is long enough away “that we can truly develop disruptive technologies and disruptive capabilities,” said Nelson Pedreiro, vice president at Lockheed Martin’s Space Advanced Technology Center.  

Miriam Klaczynska is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, pursuing a degree in the history of science, with a focus on aerospace technology. She is minoring in journalism and serves as the deputy opinion editor at Berkeley’s...