- Press Release
- Sep 28, 2022
University of Arizona Scientists Help NASA Create Spacecraft that Think for Themselves
There’s nothing worse than a satellite that can’t make decisions.
Rather than organizing data, it simply spews out everything it
collects, swamping scientists with huge amounts of information. It’s
like getting a newspaper with no headlines or section pages in which
all the stories are strung together end-to-end.
Researchers at the University of Arizona (UA), Arizona State University
(ASU) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are working to solve this
problem by developing machine-learning and pattern-recognition
software. This smart software can be used on all kinds of spacecraft,
including orbiters, landers and rovers.
Scientists currently are developing this kind of software for NASA’s
EO-1 satellite. The smart software allows the satellite to organize
data so it sends back the most timely news first, while holding back
less-timely data for later transmission.
Related Web Sites:
JPL Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment Page
NASA’s New Millennium Program
UA Hydrology and Water Resources Department
This series of images shows the image taken by the EO-1 satellite on
left and the simplified image created by flood-detection software on
This series of images of Tucson’s Avra Valley shows the image taken by
EO-1 on the left and the simplified image created by flood-detection
software on the right.
Although the project, called the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment
(ASE), is still in the test and development stage, software created by
UA hydrologists has already detected flooding on Australia’s
“We had ordered some images from the satellite to test our software in
the lab,” said Felipe Ip, a Ph.D. student in UA’s Hydrology and Water
Resources (HWR) Department. “We didn’t know the Diamantina River was
flooding, but when we started running the images through our software,
it told us, ‘Hey, we’ve got a flood here.’ We were delighted because
that’s just what it’s supposed to do.”
While Ip, under the direction of HWR researchers James Dohm and Victor
Baker, is developing the flood-detection software for EO-1, JPL team
members are creating similar software to detect volcanic activity and
ASU researchers are working on software to find changes in ice fields.
The flood-detection software compares images from the satellite’s
cameras with images stored in its computer memory. If the rivers are
not flooding and images come close to matching, the satellite remains
silent. But if the satellite’s computer finds significant differences,
it takes more photos and notifies scientists.
UA hydrologists developed the software by comparing satellite
observations with on-site observations at Tucson Water’s 11 recharge
basins. The basins are part of the Central Avra Valley Storage and
Recovery Project (CAVSARP) west of Tucson.
The basins are filled with water that flows across the desert from the
Colorado River to Tucson via the Central Arizona Project canal. The
water percolates into the ground where it is stored in a natural
underground aquifer. The large basins are routinely dried out so they
don’t become sealed like a typical pond or lake.
The next stage of testing comes in July, when the flood-detection
software will fly aboard EO-1 in nearly full autonomous mode.
While the short-term goal is to record transient events, such as
volcanic eruptions, floods and changes in ice fields on Earth, ASE
software will eventually allow scientists to detect, map out, and study
similar events throughout the solar system.
This could include activity on Mars that might indicate water produced
by springs. On Jupiter’s moons, the software could be used to detect
volcanic eruptions on Io or cracking ice sheets on Europa. Scientists
also could use the software to study changes in Saturn’s rings or the
formation of jets on comets.
“By using smart spacecraft, we won’t miss short-term events such as
floods, dust storms, and volcanic eruptions,” Ip said. “Finally,
instead of sifting through thousands of images, I can actually get some
sleep at night, knowing that a smart robot is on alert
The ASE project is funded by NASA’s New Millennium Program, which
focuses on testing exciting new technologies in space.