Alexa’s voice control software is being adapted for spaceflight, thanks to a joint passion project between Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin.
dubbed Callistothe lockheed-built device is designed to help improve life in space. The goal is for future astronauts to one day speak commands to on-board computers and hold video conferences with humans on Earth from deep space. It combines flight data from NASA’s upcoming Artemis 1 unmanned launch with Cisco‘s Webex video conferencing system and that of Amazon AI-powered virtual assistant and intercom technology. Engineers from these companies will test the first phase of this technology when the mission lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on August 29 for a 42-day trip around the moon and back.
“All of this is aimed at improving the astronauts’ quality of life and making them more productive,” said Brian Jones, Lockheed Martin chief engineer for Callisto. “They’re probably some of the most planned people on Earth – or in this case, off-Earth. They have to schedule their free time, so anything that makes them more efficient [helps].”
Those with Alexa in their house can track the mission by saying “Alexa, take me to the moon” and then asking about the flight, such as the cabin temperature of the spacecraft or how far it is from the moon. Meanwhile, Callisto’s engineers are still pinching themselves that a fun side project – one developed during their free time at work – is actually go to space.
“It’s a fantasy project for me,” said Clement Chung, applied science manager for Amazon Alexa AI. “I love Star Trek and this is exactly what you would hear Captain Kirk talking to the computer. When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Hey, yeah! Sign me up for this!’”
Challenges of space
The three-year-old Callisto project began when NASA was looking for new industry-funded technology ideas with future applications whose onboard demonstrations could appeal to the public. The concept of a voice-activated computer interface intrigued Jones enough to gather a handful of engineers from the three companies to see if it would work. Since then, hundreds of people have contributed to the project.
Callisto uses the same technology that allows Alexa to respond despite losing home Wi-Fi or mobile reception while driving. But space presents a host of other challenges, from acoustics and vibrations in the cabin to reduced bandwidth and up to 12 seconds of delay in relaying information from the moon to Earth and back.
For instant flight data, Alexa should communicate directly with the computer of the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually carry astronauts. But because NASA didn’t want Callisto to send commands to the vehicle during this flight, the engineers had to translate the raw flight monitoring data from Orion’s software architecture, in addition to Alexa and WebEx software, into understandable information and displays on an iPad. That also required prioritizing which of Orion’s 120,000 flight data points — i.e., spacecraft orientation, water supply levels, cabin temperature — were most helpful to the crew.
The engineers questioned astronauts about such voice commands. “Nobody ever wants to fire the thrusters with a voice assistant. That’s a mission-critical activity,” Jones says, dispelling unnerving comparisons to Hal, 2001: A Space Odysseys rogue computer.
Often requests for astronauts were relatively mundane. “There have been times when they took notes and the pen or notepad just floated away and they won’t know,” said Alexa senior UX designer Justin Nikolaus. “So it’s a hands-free voice experience to take notes or set a timer when they need it, and fade away when they don’t.”
Less urgent communication, such as teleconferencing with loved ones or getting sports scores, would be via the Deep Space Network (DSN), an international array of giant radio antennas that transmit data between Mission Control and spacecraft traveling to the Moon and other planets. That required engineers to figure out a way to encode the audio and video so that the data can traverse the narrow bandwidth of the DSN and Callisto can play it back in high fidelity. That’s a tall order when you consider that an uplink is equivalent to a dial-up modem (about 2 Kbps) and a downlink equivalent to first-generation broadband (270 Kbps). In comparison, the International Space Station, just 250 miles from Earth, has a connection of 600 Mbps.
“That was a balancing act for us to get both in the same small pipe and meet everyone’s quality requirements,” Jones says.
What is Artemis?
The upcoming test flight is the first of NASA’s Artemis missions, conducted in partnership with international space agencies and private industry, that aims to get humans to the moon (including the first woman and person of color) by 2025. get involved in building a space station orbiting the moon and base camp for further scientific study, economic opportunities, STEM careers, and preparation for an eventual trip to Mars.
Artemis I’ll take a test drive with the masses Space Launch System (SLS) – the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket with 30 floors and 8.8 million pounds of thrust – and the Orion capsule, whose journey humans can follow on Twitter. Orion will separate from the SLS to travel 280,000 miles from Earth, farther than any spacecraft designed for humans, for a total journey of 1.3 million miles. It will orbit the moon as far as 62 miles from the surface and extend 38,000 miles on the other side. On October’s return, Orion will hit Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph and warm to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit — faster and hotter than other returning spacecraft — with the atmosphere, maneuvering jets and 11 parachutes slowing it to a 20-minute mark. mph splashdown off the coast of San Diego.
Callisto (named after a nymph who served the Greek goddess Artemis) is one of 10 science payloads on board that will record images and data such as moon ice and hydrogen levels and magnetic field strength in space. Appropriate mannequin torsos with simulated tissue will measure g-force and radiation impact on the human body, a major challenge for deep space explorers.
The experiment on board
Callisto will also include two surveillance cameras and lights so ground crews can watch the inflight test. Engineers will use the payload from an operating room at the Johnson Space Center Mission Control in Houston, which is equipped with servers, a massive video wall and microphones. It allows them to see and hear the device in action as their faces appear on the iPad and Alexa’s familiar female voice responds to their commands. While data will travel to and from the vessel via the DSN, a cloud-connected ground device will also allow remote guests and STEM classrooms to connect to Callisto.
If all goes well, the engineers hope to further fine-tune Callisto’s space capabilities and accuracy for subsequent manned missions. Those improvements could find their way into established Alexa and Webex systems and new applications for use on ships and in extreme locations without broadband.
But first, to hinder this first demonstration. “They’ve talked about keeping some watch parts at Cisco,” said Cisco engineer Nathan Buckles. “I tell them, ‘You can invite me, but you have to realize I’m going to cry like a baby if this happens for the first time.'”