February 26, 2006 Like a friendly, non-biological form of the Borg Collective of science fiction fame, 80 personal computers, using artificial intelligence (AI), have combined their silicon brains to quickly design a tiny, advanced space antenna. If all goes well, three of these computer-designed space antennas will begin their trip into space next month (March), when an L-1011 aircraft will take off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The airplane will drop a Pegasus XL rocket into the sky high above the Pacific Ocean. The rocket will ignite and carry three small Space Technology (ST5) satellites into orbit.
Each satellite will be equipped with a strange-looking, computer-designed space antenna. Although they resemble bent paperclips, the antennas are highly efficient, according to scientists.
"This is the first time an artificially evolved object will have flown in space," observed Jason Lohn, who led the project to design the antennas at NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley.
The three 'microsats,' each no bigger than a typical TV, weigh only about 25 kilograms (55 pounds) each. Slightly bigger than a quarter, each antenna, able to fit into a one-inch space (2.5 by 2.5 centimeters), can receive commands and send data to Earth from the satellites. Together, the spacecraft will help scientists study magnetic fields in Earth's magnetosphere.
The magnetosphere is a region enveloping the Earth. Charged particles are trapped in the region, which is influenced by Earth's magnetic field.
To design the ST5 space antenna, the computers started with random antenna designs, and through the evolutionary process, refined them. The computer system took about 10 hours to complete the initial antenna design process.
"The AI software examined millions of potential antenna designs before settling on a final one," said Lohn. The software did this much faster than any human being could do so under the same circumstances, according to Lohn. "Through a process patterned after Darwin's 'survival of the fittest,' the strongest designs survive and the less capable do not."
“We told the computer program what performance the antenna should have, and the computer simulated evolution, keeping the best antenna designs that approached what we asked for. Eventually, it zeroed in on something that met the desired specifications for the mission," Lohn said.
"Not only can the software work fast, but it can adapt existing designs quickly to meet changing mission requirements," he said. Following the first design of the ST5 satellite antenna, NASA Ames scientists used the software to 're-invent' the antenna design in less than a month to meet new specifications – a very quick turn-around in the space hardware redesign process.
Scientists also can use the evolutionary AI software to invent and create new structures, computer chips and even machines, according to Lohn. "We are now using the software to design tiny microscopic machines, including gyroscopes, for spaceflight navigation," he ventured.
Four NASA Ames computer scientists spent two years developing the AI evolutionary program. It can operate on as many as 120 personal computers, which work as a team. The scientists wrote the AI software to create designs faster than a human being could.
"The software also may invent designs that no human designer would ever think of," Lohn asserted. In addition, the software can plan devices that are smaller, lighter, consume less power, are stronger and more robust among many other things – characteristics that spaceflight requires, according to Lohn.
The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington, funded development of NASA evolutionary software.