International space station launches AI program to test astronaut gloves

Spaceborne Computer by Hewlett Packard stand seen at the trade show.

Spaceborne Computer by Hewlett Packard stand seen at the trade show. Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Spaceborne Computer-2 is providing insights in real-time, just months after it was delivered to the ISS, Nextgov confirmed.

NASA, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Microsoft developed and tested an artificial intelligence workload in-orbit aboard the International Space Station.

Offering the promise of boosting astronauts’ safety when conducting ISS-aligned missions, that test is one part of a package of announcements Microsoft unveiled on Monday detailing capabilities aimed at driving developers to make and deploy new space applications and workloads.

“There’s very large change happening in space right now, where space was typically and historically a domain of government. And, frankly, it started with the U.S. and Soviet Union and then expanded to other major powers over time, and it was focused on national security, science and exploration. Really, what's expanding though, is this commercial element,” Microsoft Senior Director of Azure Space Stephen Kitay told Nextgov on Thursday. “And what we're doing is actually creating capabilities, products and services to really empower across” commercial, national security and civil space activities. 

Kitay spent more than 18 years working in the government sphere, including as the former deputy assistant Defense secretary for space policy, before joining Microsoft a year and a half ago. He provided a pre-briefing on that use case, and multiple other pursuits the company is unveiling this week at the 37th Annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

“There are new capabilities and services that are coming that have just never been available,” Kitay noted, “and it’s really exciting to be part of that.”

Tucked with cargo launched to the ISS in early 2021 was Spaceborne Computer-2, or SBC-2, an HPE-built edge computing system explicitly for in-space, commercial AI and real-time data processing. The machine taps Microsoft’s Azure Space service to connect users in orbit to the Earth, and vice versa, through the cloud. It can perform more than 2 trillion calculations per second, even in the rough conditions of space.

Now, Kitay confirmed, NASA, HPE and Microsoft officials are conducting tests with SBC-2 using AI—for the first time—to detect the damage to astronauts’ space gloves from orbit and ultimately help better protect them on missions.

“Why this is really important is these gloves are on astronauts when they go out on spacewalks outside the space station, and any sort of damage or tears could be a risk or hazard to them,” he explained. 

Typically, after exiting the ISS to go physically explore what lies beyond Earth, astronauts will photograph images of their spacesuit gloves on their return. Photos are then sent back to the ground to be inspected for wear, via a time-consuming, manual process.

“What we're doing now in our testing is running AI models on the space station to analyze the gloves to give direct insights very rapidly, and then those results are sent to the ground for analysts to then dig into the results deeper,” Kitay said.

NASA’s team essentially built an “onboard glove monitor,” by taking pictures of and tagging gloves that were new—as well as others with actual wear and tear from space. Data captured was then used to train a Microsoft Azure-based AI system that generates a probability score for the likelihood of damage to a particular place on the glove.

Currently, that damage-assessment tool developed by Microsoft and HPE is in a trial stage and therefore not used to make crucial safety decisions. But the technology shows potential, and America’s space agency also is considering expanding it to areas such as docking ports.

Beyond this fresh use case, Kitay also shed light on a variety of recent moves and partnerships Microsoft is pursuing to expand capabilities to support space-aligned operations and enable a broader community of developers. With Omnispace, for instance, Microsoft is jointly architecting an “Azure-centric, end-to-end, 5G non-terrestrial network” that could boost coverage for underserved or incredibly remote areas. 

“Our purpose is to democratize the benefits of space for every person and organization,” Kitay said. “And that ties to Microsoft's mission, which is to empower every person and organization on and off the planet to achieve more.”

Among a slew of other new collaborations and releases, Microsoft is also working with Thales Alenia Space to build an on-orbit testbed for demonstrating space-based computing, running Microsoft cloud fabric. A new memorandum of understanding agreement will connect Microsoft’s cloud services to Ball Aerospace’s hardware that is in development directly for specialized government workloads.

Further, officials intend to share new end-to-end reference architecture for applying AI to satellite imagery at-scale.

“We're trying to empower students, scientists, businesses, governments—and it's really about helping them develop and innovate faster,” Kitay said.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect the technology's record in space.

NEXT STORY: Army's data revamp hinges on APIs

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