How SpaceX is using AI to advance its ambitions

Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, refused to give up easily. Its first three attempts to launch its Falcon 1 rocket between 2006 and 2008 failed. In 2010, the company then turned to building a much bigger rocket called Falcon 9. Gradually, it began delivering cargo to the International Space Station for NASA. The following decade saw the California-based aerospace company transform due to its ability to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. On May 27, 2020, NASA launched people for the first time in 10 years aboard a rocket owned not by NASA but by SpaceX: a Dragon 2 capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket.

In the recent past, SpaceX has come to handle two-thirds of NASA launches as well as research. The company also won a contract worth $2.9 billion to build a lunar lander. Additionally, SpaceX is very optimistic about its Starship heavy rocket, which is currently in testing, and could potentially make interplanetary travel more affordable than it has ever been before. What wasn’t obvious before is just how AI-centric SpaceX’s advances in space travel are.



SpaceX uses an AI-powered autopilot program that helps rockets navigate from launch to the ISS docking station. SpaceX’s artificial intelligence system measures fuel consumption and reserves, parabolic flight, weather, liquid engine sloshing and other factors that affect rocket flights. These calculations are made based on the trajectory of the rocket to a certain point in space. This reduces the space for human error while ensuring the flight is efficient and safe.

Source: The Conversation


The Falcon 9 rocket that carried the Dragon crew to the International Space Station reportedly used ML and computer vision to help figure out its landing. The system used both a convex optimization algorithm to help figure out how to land the rocket and real-time computer vision to identify the best routing.

Astronaut assistants

In 2018, SpaceX sent a small robot called CIMON aboard its Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Short for Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, CIMON was the first AI-powered machine to fly in space. Developed by Airbus, the robot’s AI system was built on IBM’s Watson.

CIMON works as an assistant to the astronauts and is able to converse with them and assist them with routine tasks. CIMON can also send data back to Mission Control. CIMON 2, which launched in 2019, has been upgraded to have a “Watson tone analyzer” capable of reacting to a conversation based on emotion and tone. However, SpaceX said it has no plans to completely replace its human crew with robots.

Satellite Security

SpaceX’s satellites have built-in sensors that guide them through space and prevent them from colliding with debris and other extraterrestrial objects in space. Satellite AI systems discover predictive models for planets, debris and other satellites. However, over the past year, there have been several instances of SpaceX’s Starlink nearly colliding with other satellites.

SpaceX is also working on building a batch of satellites with Microsoft Azure. Azure has an orbital emulator that can create a complete digital environment to help users visualize satellite architecture. In a blog published by the company, Microsoft Azure said, “It allows satellite developers to evaluate and train AI algorithms and satellite networks even before launching a single satellite. Azure can emulate an entire satellite network, including generating complex scenes in real time using pre-collected satellite imagery for direct processing by virtualized and real satellite hardware.

emergency evacuation

As a huge plus, SpaceX rockets have a built-in AI-driven emergency abort system. Prior to Falcon 9’s launch, SpaceX successfully tested its exhaust system.

Source: NASA

Although SpaceX has made the most of AI to its advantage, AI and ML have been widely applied in the region for a long time. Images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope are classified by simulating galactic formations using deep learning. Rovers like NASA’s Curiosity operate using ML algorithms like autonomous vehicles. NASA has partnered with Google to use AI algorithms to detect signals from exoplanets by processing data received from the Kepler mission. ML also helps to measure the atmosphere of other planets. AI contributions led NASA to create its own artificial intelligence group for basic space transportation research, mission analysis, and deep space network operations.

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