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Artificial intelligence race moving to space, AI boom underway ‘just the tip of the iceberg’

SN Military.Space

Using free data from the European Space Agency, a startup in Finland created a geospatial information service that is entirely enabled by artificial intelligence. AI algorithms are used to remove clouds and track changes in structures on the ground. The service, targeted at government agencies and industries like agriculture and infrastructure, costs about $4,000 a year. It is free to researchers studying the impact of natural disasters.


Joni Norppa, CEO and co-founder of the startup, named Terramonitor, says the current AI boom is only the tip of the iceberg. “We’re just beginning our mission to democratize space data,” he tells SpaceNews.

“There is lot of interest in remote-sensing data for operational use,” Norppa said. “With machine learning and AI, you don’t need any human labor to do that.”

Today only a fraction of the available space data is operationalized. One of the obstacles is that almost every image is covered by clouds. “We made an algorithm that detects clouds and makes cloudless mosaics autonomously.”

Terramonitor’s AI-based mapping was developed with 10-meter resolution imagery and radar data from ESA’s Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 1 satellites. Norppa: “Companies see the value of satellite intelligence but they don’t know how to get it, and don’t think they can afford it.” Maybe now they can.

PENTAGON SHARPENS AI FOCUS As artificial intelligence reaches fever pitch in the private sector, the U.S. government is working to capitalize on the technology. The military suffered a setback when Google decided to pull out of Project Maven, a program that uses AI algorithms to identify targets from drone video streams.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, an early champion of AI for military application, said Google’s actions — in response to employee blowback that they did not want AI used to kill people — were “troubling” because they would deter other tech firms from working with DoD. He warned that a rift between the tech industry and DoD is harmful to national security as other countries move to exploit AI and other ground-breaking technologies.

“Not being able to tap into the immense talent at Google to help DoD employ AI in ethical and moral ways is very sad for our society.”

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work,
speaking at the Center for a New American Security.

Dana Deasy
Dana Deasy

JOINT ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE CENTER The JAIC will be the Pentagon’s nerve center for all AI activities and will set the agenda for the military services as they plan their R&D budgets. Newly hired DoD Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy will oversee the center.

Analyst Stephanie Meloni, of the immixGroup, said it makes perfect sense for the CIO to guide AI efforts. To make AI capabilities a reality, “there will be a growing need to implement cloud, infrastructure, cybersecurity and Internet of Things technologies,” she wrote in Washington Technology. “Clean, authoritative and trustworthy data is the foundation of all analytics, and AI is no exception. … AI and machine learning is a topic that touches all technology categories.”

MILITARY BADLY NEEDS AI Air Combat Commander Gen. Mike Holmes said the Project Maven controversy has distracted from the central reason why the military must have the technology, which is to analyze the overwhelming amount of data that is collected by drones, satellites and other sensors. Maven was “one of the first steps” toward greater use of learning machines and algorithms “to be able to allow people to focus on things that people do best and let the machine do that repetitive task,” Holmes told reporters. “That’s a big part of our future and you’ll continue to see that.”

GO WHERE THE MONEY IS Holmes continued: “For the military to be able to move forward into the future, we need to take advantage of where that R&D money is being spent and where the advances are in technology. If you look at where the money is, there’s a lot more money in the tech side than there is in the classic defense industrial complex. … If we’re going to be effective in this battle of technology with adversaries, we hope to be able to take advantage of that.”


New details have emerged on China’s ambitious space agenda, including plans to develop super-heavy-lift and reusable rockets.

As Andrew Jones reported in SpaceNews last week, the Chinese envision Long March 9 to be a Saturn 5-class super-heavy-lift rocket comparable in capacity to the Space Launch System currently in development by NASA.

Long March 5, China’s largest rocket so far, debuted in 2016 and last July suffered a first stage engine issue that prompted a redesign. A third flight of the rocket is expected in November. Long March 9 would be ready for its first test flight around 2030.

These revelations should be of great concern to the United States, warns industry consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute, a think tank funded by defense contractors. “China’s military probably has plans for Long March 9. Plans that don’t include sightseeing on Mars,” Thompson tells SpaceNews.

It is a clear illustration of how China’s military benefits from controlling the nation’s space program, Thompson argues in a new Forbes article. Beijing intends to catch up with and surpass NASA’s SLS, the most ambitious rocket program ever attempted by the agency. While SLS is being designed for deep space exploration, China has announced no plans for going to Mars. “So why does it want a rocket that can lift even more than SLS?”

LAUNCH A STRATEGIC ASSET Thompson echos similar concerns expressed by U.S. officials like Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, who has argued that heavy lift is a strategic capability with enormous national security implications. Rocket technology can be applied to ballistic missiles and satellites.

China’s Long March family of launch vehicles can already accomplish most of what Beijing’s leaders want to do in space, Thompson noted. “So there must be some other explanation for pouring billions of yuans into developing a super-heavy rocket.”

CHINA SEEKS PARITY WITH U.S. While the official story is that China too wants to pursue deep space exploration, the military there is most likely eyeing some new capabilities such the ability to deploy powerful surveillance satellites on par with U.S. technology. Thompson: “Because China trails the U.S. in satellite technology, a spacecraft matching the functionality of Lockheed Martin’s Space Based Infrared System would probably be bigger and heavier in the Chinese configuration. With a super-heavy rocket, though, deploying such a constellation in geosynchronous orbit would presumably be much easier.”


A new manufacturing plant on Florida’s space coast will manufacture satellites for Airbus’ joint venture with broadband startup OneWeb.

Airbus hopes the investment will position the company to win military contracts. The big selling point will be the speed of the assembly line.

The military is becoming more interested in LEO constellations of small satellites as a more resilient alternative to large, monolithic platforms in higher orbits. In a conflict, if U.S. satellites were targeted by lasers or electronic jammers, new ones could be quickly produced and launched.

A key opportunity is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program, described as an “architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight and cost.” DARPA wants to buy commercial satellite buses and marry them with military sensors and payloads. This makes Blackjack an attractive project for mass manufacturers like Airbus and SpaceX that can compete on price and response time. READ MORE HERE


The Army’s new Kestrel Eye remote-sensing satellite has been in orbit for a few months.

A selected group of soldiers is learning not just to operate the satellite but also to support imagery requests from the battlefield.

“We are training the soldiers from the start,” Army Space and Missile Defense Command engineer Matthew Hitt, said in an Army news release.

The training program also includes the “warfighter assisting low Earth orbit tracker” antenna and the Kestrel Eye ground station, so soldiers can support overhead satellite passes. “We want to get them to the point of being able to operate an overhead pass independently,” Hitt said. “We want them to be able to collect all the data, archive it and get it out to who needs it.”

Soldiers will have a “fundamental understanding how Kestrel Eye works, not just how to request something from the satellite. And they will be able to convey that information when they go back to their unit.” The Army estimated that using a microsatellite requires a smaller logistical footprint in the field when compared to an unmanned aerial system.

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Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...