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Intelligent Systems for Future Spacecraft

Build a model to test out systems on an aircraft and you’ve created what engineers call an ‘iron bird.’ Now, as this press release from NASA explains, the agency is developing a ‘virtual iron bird’ (VIB) that would computerize the process, providing three-dimensional images of of individual systems and parts that engineers or astronauts can use to debug problems or refine improvements. In the work, being conducted at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the VIB is envisioned as a complete computerized model of the spacecraft that would be carried in its computers, including engineering drawings, specifications, part numbers and all relevant details. Another use of VIB will be to simulate flight situations for vehicles still in the planning stages.

Centauri Dreams‘ take: we’ll need onboard systems that include evolutionary algorithms aboard interstellar probes, allowing them to become self-healing and react to failures of components in ways that are more flexible than current computer models. Even the fastest Centauri missions involve almost fifty years in transit, while some (more realistic) scenarios involve hundreds of years. Robotic probes decades or centuries from home will be adaptive and, it is possible, self-aware, evolving their own fixes to problems their designers may not have been able to anticipate. The current NASA work is at the beginning of this process and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves. For just one take on evolutionary algorithms and replicating systems, see the work of Jordan Pollack and Hod Lipson at Brandeis University.