On July 20th, 1969, nearly half a billion people around the world huddled next to their modest black and white TV sets to watch a historic moment. On their tiny screens was a small crew of U.S. astronauts stepping where no other human had stepped before: the Moon. With millions of times fewer computing power than a modern smartphone1, humankind had ventured over 200,000 miles both to-and-from Earth’s natural satellite.
That trip was in one way the crowning achievement of a nerve-wracking period of space exploration and in another way the starting point to reveal the mysteries of the celestial objects around us.
Now, just 50 years later, people are exploring the depths of deep space. Just recently, humanity was awestruck to finally find out what a supermassive black hole looks like2 in a galaxy 54 million light years away. This milestone was made possible thanks to the efforts of over 200 scientists, hundreds of terabytes of black hole data stored on nearly half a ton of hard drives, and new sophisticated algorithms to stitch the raw data into a single image of a black hole.
Looking back on the rapid progress made in the last half-century, what possibilities for deep space exploration could be enabled by technology in the next 50 years and beyond? To find out, we sat down with Alires Almon, Founder and Principal Investigator at Deep Space Predictive. She and her international research team are looking into the role of psychological performance, including astronauts on long-term space missions.
Interview with Alires Almon
Could you give us some background on Deep Space Predictive and your long-term strategy?
ALIRES: The Deep Space Predictive Research Group seeks to understand the role that emotions play in our decision making and expressed behavior. Currently, we are developing studies to understand the presence of emotions and what their behavioral outcomes are. By understanding the many intricate layers of this state of mind, we can begin to understand an individual’s psychological propensities. We also create avenues to allow individuals and teams to manage that emotion within the context of their own abilities and experiences, especially negative emotions that may lead to psychological breaking points. We want to give people the tools they need to navigate through that emotional turmoil so that they do not end up broken.
Will space travelers be able to find inner peace and tranquility in the depths of deep space?
To that end, we are working on creating algorithms to predict psychological breaking points. We realize that this is ambitious, but there are many useful steps along the way. Our goal is to create psychological safety for those individuals – astronauts, SEALs, Antarctic research teams, and more – who either put their lives on the line for our safety and well-being or are moving humanity forward.
Why are current data-driven techniques for short-term space missions insufficient for long-term space exploration?
ALIRES: Current data-driven techniques are dependent on large and frequently updated datasets. In long-term space exploration, however, your data sets will always be small and repetitive. We will be concerned about data storage and the ability of an artificial intelligence (AI) to continue to learn and readjust itself to new data, especially when new baselines of information emerge throughout the mission. Everything must be autonomous and self-contained.
Bias is another issue that can deeply affect the validity of long-term behavioral studies. Conditions aboard long-term explorative missions will likely encourage behavior that would be counterproductive or counterintuitive on the earth. An AI would need to distinguish positive from negative behavior patterns in an environment where existing social and ethical norms could very well deviate from the baseline.
How do you define well-being and productivity of teams for long-term deep space missions?
ALIRES: We define those terms though physical and psychological health. There are many scientists and doctors working on maintaining optimal physiological health. But, the challenges that astronauts will face in space are very different than on Earth. Living in a micro-gravity environment causes a lot of changes to the human body.
Astronauts will have a lot of work to keep them busy, but even that can get monotonous. There are opportunities to look at ways to make the work and living environments more “livable” and enjoyable. We want the astronauts and crews to be well-adjusted physically and emotionally so that they can have a successful and enjoyable mission.
By using data to simulate conditions on far-off stars, virtual reality could help prepare astronauts for deep space travel.
How might technologies such as augmented reality (AR) help prepare humans to survive in deep space?
ALIRES: Augmented reality is a great training tool. It provides an opportunity to do situational training in a closed environment. It will be used to get individuals used to new experiences and living environments. A little bit of “try before you buy” activity.
I don’t think people realize the truth of space travel. AR and VR (virtual reality) can bring a little of that reality to life. These technologies also provide an immersive environment to allow people to experience and adjust to new environments.
“We have a good idea about what some planetary environments look like, and we can try and experience those environments through AR and VR.”
We have great data on the moon, Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. How we interact with those planets can be programmed into AR/VR environments3.
What is different about deep space missions than current missions now?
ALIRES: The difference with deep space missions is that they are longer and the crew will be more autonomous. They will be expected to manage all mission operations and activities mostly by themselves. For instance, the current mission directive to go to Mars is several months. If that time frame were on our world’s international space station, the experience of this astronaut would be very different than the extended trip of another astronaut going to Mars would experience.
An astronaut on Earth’s low orbit space station has real-time communications with expert assistance, a view of Earth from their window, emergency rescue likely a few days away, and consistent resupply. For Mars and longer missions, the crew is fully autonomous. They will leave Earth with everything they need for the entire trip. Rescue could be over a year away and communications are delayed by several minutes to-and-from Mars.
The psychological experience of space exploration will be very different for a deep space crew; the feeling of isolation will be much more pronounced. As our exploration efforts become more advanced, there may be supply stations along the way and our communication time frames will get shorter. Astronauts will have more familiarity with the deep space experience and we will know how to best support them. Overall, it is just a tougher mission. If we start going further and further out – to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – those initial challenges will be even greater.
What are going to be the biggest hurdles that data R&D will need to address for us to meet the demands of deep space missions and human behavior monitoring?
“The biggest challenges that I see in deep space exploration are storage capacity, computational power and long-term retrieval compatibility.”
Most importantly, we must consider the autonomy of the machine learning algorithms used to monitor the health of these astronauts. Can an AI manage adjustments to a feedback loop that impacts both the individual and the group, when a new scenario is introduced? We will be relying on the ability of the algorithms to self-adjust to a new data norm.
In what ways could deep space affect the human body and aging process?
ALIRES: The first thoughts that spring to mind are the obvious ones we are working towards resolving: exposure to radiation, bone loss, eyesight degradation, various reproductive impacts, and more. From a recent study on twins by a prestigious space program4, there were lots of discoveries. Telomeres at the end of chromosomes, which are indicators of longevity, have shown to be elongated on those individuals who have spent extensive time in space. This means that these individuals can potentially lead longer lives because their cell life has been extended. That is a really interesting outcome of living in space with microgravity.
What are current data-driven techniques that can be utilized for human behavior and group dynamic monitoring?
ALIRES: Long-term behavioral research often requires an interdisciplinary approach, utilizing game theory, cognitive behavior techniques and behavioral economics. These techniques will have to integrate with physiological data gathering techniques. The integration of these data sets will be vital to developing a holistic picture of the individual space explorer and the group as a whole.
When do you believe that interstellar travel could be possible?
ALIRES: With the efforts of 100 Year Starship and many others, they are planning to ensure the capabilities to mount an interstellar mission are completed within 100 years5. So 2113-ish is a target date. Maybe sooner.
It is a lot to prepare a society to go interstellar. In fact, it is about a 70,000 year journey to our nearest star with our current technology levels6. We may have some radical breakthroughs in the next hundred years that enable some fascinating possibilities. Artificial gravity anyone?
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- Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. https://www.zmescience.com/research/technology/smartphone-power-compared-to-apollo-432/
- Black hole picture captured for first time in space breakthrough. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/apr/10/black-hole-picture-captured-for-first-time-in-space-breakthrough
- ER7 | Simulation and Graphics Branch. https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/ER7/
- Twins Study | NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/twins-study/
- 100 Year Starship | Mission. https://100yss.org/mission/purpose
- 100 Year Starship | Challenges. https://100yss.org/mission/challenges