China: AI to help spacecraft avoid space debris in near-Earth orbit

"We are going to investigate AI paradigms with regard to the monitoring of multi-scale space debris, debris environment evolution, and space situational awareness."
Deena Theresa
A cosmic junkyard.
A cosmic junkyard.


Artificial intelligence has been making headlines ever since their disruptor-in-chief, ChatGPT set foot more than two months ago. In the latest news, Chinese researchers are harnessing AI to ensure spacecraft a smooth mission by dodging space debris in orbit, South China Morning Post reported.

According to the state-backed PLA Daily, the project is led by scientists at the Xian Satellite Control Centre in northwestern China. It will create AI algorithms that can autonomously monitor and help avoid space debris that stands obstacle to global space missions. 

"We’ll use our decade-long expertise in space collision avoidance and debris mitigation, and pool experts from across the country to answer China’s strategic needs," principal project investigator Jiang Yu told the PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. "More specifically, we are going to investigate AI paradigms with regard to the monitoring of multi-scale space debris, debris environment evolution, and space situational awareness."

China is not the first to attempt training AI to avoid space junk; the European Space Agency started the mission a few years ago. An extensive data set of historical collision warnings were created, and ESA asked the global AI community to help develop a system that could eventually autonomously dodge orbital debris.

The 'throwaway' culture in space is a global problem

More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are currently being tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors, according to NASA. Additionally, debris that is too small to be tracked but large enough to damage both crewed and uncrewed missions exist in near-Earth orbit. A small piece of orbital debris can pose a massive threat to space vehicles, including the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The "throwaway" culture in space is a global problem. Last year, Federal Communications Commission chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed new rules that would require operators of satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) to deorbit their satellites within five years of completing their missions. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 4-0 to adopt new rules to address the increasing risks of orbital debris. 

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The rules could also shorten the existing 25-year guideline for deorbiting satellites after they no longer function.

Integrating AI could help improve the speed and the quality of information

According to researchers from China’s National University of Defense Technology, the space environment was becoming too complicated and uncertain to be managed as per human judgment. Adopting AI technologies could improve the speed and quality of information acquisition and provide support for a secure space environment, they wrote.

China is also incorporating AI into developing smart satellite constellations for scientific research. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg of what AI can do.

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