New 'AI-brained' Chinese satellite has just been launched

Launched onboard a commercially-produced CERES-1 Y7 rocket, China's revolutionary AI-powered "WonderJourney" satellite could usher in fully autonomous spacecraft very soon.
Christopher McFadden
China's WonderJourney satellite
China's WonderJourney satellite

Star Vision 

A Chinese commercially-produced rocket has delivered a package of satellites to orbit, including a cutting-edge AI-powered satellite called "WonderJourney," reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Named after a famous Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi who first described the concept of the "universe," the new satellite is said to be able to process data in situ rather than back at ground control. The ultimate aim of the new satellite is to produce fully autonomous spacecraft in the future.

China's "Smart" satellite

“The goal is to enable human interaction with spacecraft, allowing the satellite to autonomously warn about situations that can’t be analyzed from the Earth’s surface and continue learning without sending vast amounts of data back to Earth," Chen Junrui, a spokesman for the Hangzhou-based developer STAR.VISION, said.

Also called WJ-1A, the satellite launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia onboard a CERES-1 Y7 rocket on August 11, 2023. Apart from "WonderJourney," the rocket also carried six other satellites, including Xiguang-1 01, that will be used for Earth observation, serving natural resources, agriculture, forestry, smart city, and disaster reduction. Another satellite was Starpool I-1B, designed for remote sensing, satellite-to-satellite and satellite-to-ground communication, and navigation augmentation.

“[String Edge AI Platform] serves as the satellite’s brain, allowing real-time observation and processing. Traditionally, data has to be sent back to a ground control center for analysis and instructions. But WJ-1A can handle it on the fly,” Chen explained.

“WJ-1A is China’s first satellite with artificial intelligence (AI) at its core, featuring a smart operating system, and it will soon be put into operation,” the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer Wang Chunhui said last week. The satellite's primary task will be to conduct system testing and validate various intelligent applications for efficiency in orbit. These applications include connecting with future smart cars and drones and monitoring environmental conditions like forest fires, soil moisture, and pest diseases.

“WJ-1A is equipped with high-resolution cameras, near-infrared cameras, and VR panoramic cameras, allowing for various image processing tasks. Through image semantic understanding, it can recognize forests and oceans. It is also capable of target identification, lossless compression, and data cleaning,” Chen added.

Compared to traditional satellites, the satellite can analyze 3,861 miles2 (10,000 km2) and track objects in just a few hours, which takes roughly 180 days. The satellite is equipped with functions for communication and is being updated to become an AI assistant in space. Ground users can speak to it, similar to ChatGPT.

19 more to come

“It’s like an untapped ‘brain’; in order to make it smarter, more users from various industries are needed to teach it,” Chen said. Chen announced that "WonderJourney" will expand its constellation to 20 satellites by the end of 2024, in collaboration with partners, to improve coverage and communication efficiency.

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