When NASA launches its new massive deep-space rocket for the first time this year, it will be accompanied by a familiar voice assistant and video conferencing tool. On the space voyage, a version of Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and Cisco’s Webex video conferencing platform will be included as part of a technology demonstration to explore if these tools can benefit future astronauts going to distant places like the Moon and Mars.
The scheduled mission known as Artemis I, is tentatively scheduled for March, will be the first flight of NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, a massive rocket that Boeing has been developing for the last decade. The SLS is intended to send people and cargo into deep space, with passengers flying atop the spacecraft in a new crew capsule named Orion created by Lockheed Martin.
SLS will launch an Orion crew capsule around the Moon on a weeks-long journey for Artemis I, marking the first time the two vehicles will go to orbit together. Since this is a crucial test launch, only a dummy will be flying within Orion. However, some machine friends will accompany the dummy passenger. Lockheed Martin collaborated with Amazon and Cisco to install a “human-machine interface” at the future location of Orion’s control panel.
The box, dubbed Callisto, would have a voice-activated Alexa speaker with its famous blue ring light and an iPad running Webex. People on the ground will put the box to test at some point during the Artemis I mission.
“We… envision a future in which astronauts could turn to an onboard artificial intelligence for information and for assistance and ultimately for companionship,” Aaron Rubenson, vice president of Alexa Everywhere at Amazon, said during a press release.
“You could easily imagine astronauts turning to this onboard AI to talk about the status of a subsystem or maybe controlling the lights in the cabin or asking for a particular camera view.”
Lockheed Martin will use “virtual crew members” on the ground to see the tools working. A command will be given to Alexa from NASA’s mission control center in Houston while Orion is in space. To activate Alexa, that person’s speech will be broadcast over a speaker inside Orion. The virtual crew members will inquire about the speed at which Orion is traveling through space and how long before the capsule’s next thruster fire. Alexa is programmed to pull real-time data from Orion to respond to questions via its speaker.
Although the Orion spacecraft is outfitted with Wi-Fi, internet access will be limited because the vehicle will be speeding through space away from Earth during the test. As a result, Alexa won’t need to use the internet throughout the flight to respond to some virtual crew members’ emergency questions. Instead, Amazon equipped this Alex with a “local voice control” mechanism that allows it to respond to a wide range of pre-programmed requests.
“There are hundreds of parameters, thousands of utterances, where we’ll be able to get that real-time access,” Rob Chambers, director of the commercial civil space strategy at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement.
Virtual crew members will also ask Alexa to modify the lighting within Orion. Behind the panel display, Lockheed Martin has placed a separate LED lighting system that Alexa should manage. Lockheed Martin has also installed a few microphones and cameras and a virtual reality camera throughout Orion’s cockpit to document the demonstration and ensure the box works throughout the mission.
The last test will determine whether or not the Webex platform is functional. Virtual crew members on the ground will appear on the iPad screen inside Orion and hold a 720P video conference with Alexa during the flight.
“There will be a lot of back loss compensation technology because your network connectivity is going to be not as reliable as what you have,” Jeetu Patel, executive vice president, and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco, said in a press release.
“And so we have to make sure that that’s factored in.” Cisco envisions that astronauts could use this tool for videoconferencing with members of mission control or perhaps loved ones on the ground while astronauts are traveling through space.
Callisto is primarily a technology demonstration, and there are presently no plans to fly the box aboard future Orion flights. After Artemis I, the second mission will be Artemis II, which will feature astronauts onboard Orion flying around the Moon. If Callisto proves to be a success, it’s feasible that a future version of the technology will appear in Artemis missions in a different form.