Feb 232006

ST5 Satellite Antenna

BoingBoing.com is reporting that NASA will make history next month when it launches three Space Technology (ST5) satellites into orbit on board a Pegasus XL rocket. It is not the launch itself that is noteworthy, but rather a relatively small, but very important component of the satellites: their antennas. Not much bigger than a quarter and looking a lot like a randomly bent paper clip, the ST5’s antenna are actually the result of 80 computers running a “survival of the fittest” evolutionary algorithm in parallel to calculate the most efficient design for the space antenna. The March launch will mark the first time that a device designed by AI will have flown and be put into operation in space.

The ST5 is a micro-satellite that weighs roughly 55 pounds and is not much larger than a TV set. Although the antenna may seem tiny, it is the optimal design for bi-directional communication with the terrestrial scientists who will be using the satellites to collect data on magnetic fields in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

In order to design the antenna, the computers were first given a set of target performance parameters for the final antenna. Starting with random designs, they tested the simulated performance of the designs and using an algorithm mimicking natural evolution, kept the best designs, modified them and continued the evaluation-mutation process until they honed in on the optimal design. In all, the computers evaluated millions of designs in a 10 hour period before picking the best – a feat orders of magnitude faster than could be achieved by humans alone.

The NASA scientists are excited about this computer system, a benevolent “Borg” of sorts, and rightfully so. Not only can it design systems from scratch, but the evolutionary software can also be used to modify existing systems as their performance requirements change. Additionally, the software can be used to design other structures including computer chips and complex machines. Not only can the system design and test more iterations than are humanly possible, it may also lead to results that no human designer would have ever considered. Based on the shape of the ST5 antennas, I believe this may already be the case.

Read NASA’s press release about the ST5 antenna: “‘Borg’ Computer Collective Designs NASA Space Antenna.”

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