A spaceship Alexa that helps astronauts work and make calls h | Panda Anku

Alexa’s voice command software is optimized for space thanks to a joint passion project between Amazon, Cisco and Lockheed Martin.

Called the Callisto, the device built by Lockheed was designed to improve life in space. The goal is that future astronauts will one day be speaking commands to on-board computers and video conferencing with people on Earth from space. It combines flight data from NASA’s upcoming Artemis 1 unmanned launch with Cisco’s Webex video conferencing system and Amazon’s AI-driven virtual assistant and intercom technology. Engineers from these companies will test the first stage 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 quality of life for astronauts and making them more productive,” says Brian Jones, Lockheed Martin’s chief engineer for Callisto. “They are probably among the most scheduled people on Earth—or beyond Earth in this case. They need to schedule their free time, anything that makes them more efficient [helps].”

Those who have Alexa at home can track the mission by saying, “Alexa, take me to the moon,” then asking about the flight, e.g. B. by the cabin temperature of the spacecraft or how far it is from the moon. Meanwhile, Callisto engineers are still pinching themselves that this is a fun side project developed in their spare time at work actually go to space.

“It’s a fantasy project for me,” says Clement Chung, applied science manager at Amazon Alexa AI. “I am in love star trek and that’s what you would hear when Captain Kirk talks to the computer. When I heard about it, I was like, ‘Hey, yeah! Sign me up for it!’”

Space Challenges

The three-year-old Callisto project began when NASA was looking for novel, industry-funded technology ideas with future applications whose onboard demonstrations could appeal to the public. Jones was so intrigued by the concept of a voice-activated computer interface that he gathered 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 Wi-Fi connectivity at home or cellular signal while driving. But space presents a whole host of other challenges, from cabin acoustics and vibrations to reduced bandwidth to a 12-second delay in getting information from the Moon to Earth and back.

For instant flight data, Alexa would need to communicate directly with the computer on the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually carry astronauts. However, because NASA didn’t want Callisto to send commands to the vehicle on this flight, engineers had to translate the raw flight monitoring data from Orion’s software architecture, along with Alexa and WebEx software, into understandable information and displays on an iPad. This also involved prioritizing which of Orion’s 120,000 flight data points—ie, 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 engines with a voice assistant. It’s a mission-critical activity,” says Jones, dispelling pesky comparisons to Hal, 2001: A Space Odyssey rogue computer.

Astronaut requests were often relatively trivial. “There were times when they were taking notes and the pen or pad just floated away and they didn’t realize it,” says Justin Nikolaus, Senior UX Designer at Alexa. “So it’s a hands-free voice experience to take notes or set a timer whenever you need it and hide when you don’t.”

Less urgent communications, like conference calls with loved ones or checking sports scores, would be relayed 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. To do this, engineers had to find a way to encode the audio and video so that the data could traverse the narrow bandwidth of the DSN and be played back by Callisto with high fidelity. That’s quite a challenge considering that it requires an uplink on par with a dial-up modem (about 2 Kbps) and a downlink equivalent to first-generation broadband (270 Kbps). For comparison, the International Space Station, just 250 miles from Earth, has a 600 Mbps connection.

“It was a balancing act for us to get both into the same little tube and meet everyone’s quality requirements,” says Jones.

[Photo: NASA]

What is Artemis?

The upcoming test flight is the first of NASA’s Artemis missions, conducted in collaboration with international space agencies and private industry, and aims to send humans (including the first woman and person of color) to the moon as early as 2025. Wider efforts include building lunar orbit and a base camp to advance scientific studies, economic opportunities, STEM careers and prepare for an eventual trip to Mars.

Artemis I will test the massive Space Launch System (SLS) — the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket at 30 stories and 8.8 million pounds of thrust — and the Orion capsule, whose journey people 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 to within 62 miles of its surface and extend 38,000 miles beyond its other side. Upon reentry in October, Orion will hit Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour and heat up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit – faster and hotter than other returning spacecraft – with the atmosphere, maneuvering jets and 11 parachutes preparing them for a 20 mph splashdown the coast of San Diego.

Callisto (named after a nymph who served the Greek goddess Artemis) is one of 10 onboard science payloads that will record imagery and data such as lunar ice and hydrogen levels and magnetic field strength in space. Appropriate mannequin torsos with simulated tissue measure G-force and the effect of radiation on the human body, one of the greatest challenges for space explorers.

The onboard experiment

Callisto will also include two surveillance cameras and lights so ground crew can view the in-flight test. Engineers will deploy the payload from an operations suite at Houston’s Johnson Space Center Mission Control, equipped with servers, a giant video wall and microphones. This allows them to see the contraption in action and hear them as their faces appear on the iPad and Alexa’s familiar female voice responds to their commands. Although data is transmitted to and from the vehicle via the DSN, a cloud-connected ground device also allows external guests and STEM classrooms to connect to Callisto.

If all goes well, engineers hope to further fine-tune Callisto’s spaceflight capabilities and accuracy on later manned missions. These 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 prevent this first demonstration. “They talked about throwing some surveillance parties at Cisco,” says Cisco engineer Nathan Buckles. “I tell them, ‘You can invite me, but you have to know that the first time something like this happens, I’m going to cry like a baby.'”

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