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One small step for astronaut gloves, one giant leap for the space economy

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Microsoft's AI program analyzes an astronaut's gloves for damage from the International Space Station.

Microsoft and Hewlett Packard partnered up with NASA to develop and test an AI software that helps to quickly analyze astronauts' gloves damage from space. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

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Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced Monday that they’ve partnered up with NASA to bring artificial intelligence to the International Space Station.

This AI checks astronauts’ gloves for damage. Gloves are really important for the astronauts carrying out maintenance at the station. They’re needed to provide good grip, help maintain pressure and protect astronauts from extreme temperatures. A damaged glove is a big deal.

According to Stephen Kitay, senior director of Azure Space at Microsoft, this new AI promises to save time. The following is an edited transcript of Kitay’s conversation with “Marketplace Tech” host Meghan McCarty Carino.

Stephen Kitay: When [astronauts] come back into the airlock, they take pictures of those gloves. Those pictures then get sent down to Earth, where analysts would then analyze them. The challenge is that there is a limited amount of bandwidth to get data from the space station down to Earth. So we worked to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm that is able to identify potential tears.

Meghan McCarty Carino: Is this kind of an image recognition-type technology?

Kitay: This is artificial intelligence, and then underneath that, a subset of that, is image recognition. NASA engineers were able to build this model. They started looking at astronaut gloves, and then they looked at areas of damage. Now, that is then able to create a model that when the artificial intelligence is run on it, it can then identify those areas of the image. And it even gives a level of confidence.

McCarty Carino: And this happens sort of virtually, instantaneously, versus having to send an image across space to Earth and send the response back?

Kitay: Exactly. So the power here is that we’re bringing that processing aboard the International Space Station, whereas all of that would have happened on the ground. And this is all testing, so it’s not being used operationally. But through testing, it’s processed on board the Spaceborne Computer. And then the areas that are identified, that need review, are then sent down to the ground where analysts can then look at it closer. It saves time, for those analysts, to be able to give it a focus on the mission they need to.

McCarty Carino: How much demand is there for this type of technology on space stations?

Kitay: We’re starting out now, and really able to show the power of bringing these technologies to developers. I would have to point to NASA to be able to talk about where we go from here. But we’ve seen tremendous excitement from them, and being able to really harness commercial technologies and bring it into these mission areas to help them do their jobs much better.

McCarty Carino: Tell me about some of the other projects in space that that you’re working on right now, I guess, if you’re allowed to talk about them.

Kitay: Of course, absolutely. So we’re working with [aerospace multinational] Thales, who’s going to be putting a remote sensor on board the International Space Station that’s looking down at the Earth. And Microsoft is going to be working with Thales to help bring artificial intelligence and to do on-board compute on the International Space Station to specifically address areas such as climate change, and be able to do processing and run algorithms on board the space station.

Beyond the ISS, we’re looking at and working on partnerships with other companies to bring their processing on board satellites. And we’ve got two new partnerships there. One is with Loft Orbital, which is a company that has a unique business model insofar as making space simple, and making space as a service and bringing multiple tenants on board a spacecraft for their different mission applications and selling it as a service. And we’re working with Loft Orbital to bring our compute on board the satellite to be able to do different functions, such as be able to enable commanding and processing on board, depending on what’s actually detected.

Beyond Loft Orbit, we’re also working with Ball Aerospace, which has a very unique history and set of capabilities to support governments and unique mission applications, such as weather monitoring. And we’re working with them on new on-board compute capabilities to be able to empower their developers as well.

McCarty Carino: It sounds like there’s just more commercial technology being deployed into space every day. Is this sort of the start of a whole space economy?

Kitay: That is what is really exciting. Space is changing, and it really started as the domain of governments and was primarily focused on national security missions, as well as civil and exploration. But what’s happening now is this commercial activity in space, and there’s new investments and new technologies and new missions that are being opened up to open up more opportunities and ultimately be able to benefit life here on Earth.

Related links: More insight from Meghan McCarty Carino

Stephen Kitay talked about this new space economy and, of course, billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are in on it with their commercial space enterprises.

This week, we could see the first private mission to the International Space Station with a crew made up of private citizens from a company called Axiom Space. It plans to make the journey aboard a SpaceX spacecraft. If there are no further delays, as Space News reports, the mission will launch this Friday. It’s part of a long-term plan to establish a commercial space station.

Unless sanctions are lifted, Russia is now threatening to pull out of its collaboration on the ISS. The Verge reporter Loren Grush points out that Russia plays a pretty important role in maintaining the position of the ISS in space. NASA had been counting on Russian cooperation through at least 2024. A withdrawal of the country now could do real damage.

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