June 25, 2004
Software on a NASA spacecraft recently made a scientific observation on its own without human interaction. The Space Technology 6 Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment captured images of Antarctica's Mount Erebus and detected volcanic activity.
The software, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., controls the Earth Observing-1 spacecraft. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, manages the satellite. The software examines pictures from the Hyperion spectrometer, an instrument highly sensitive to heat released from molten lava.
After taking an image of Erebus, the software detected heat from the lava lake at the summit of the volcano and reprogrammed the camera to take more pictures. News of the detection was rapidly transmitted to scientists. Typically, it could take months to learn a remote volcano was active and scientists normally would need to take measurements at the volcano to detect the same type of event. Researchers at JPL and Goddard will test the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment on Erebus and other volcanoes for the next several months.
"Autonomous Sciencecraft is a giant leap toward a thinking spacecraft," said Dr. Steve Chien, JPL senior technologist for the software. "The software is the first use of autonomy allowing the spacecraft to make decisions without waiting for commands from scientists. It can capture short-lived science events that otherwise would have been missed."
"With this software we can monitor many more volcanoes, since it knows how to only look at the active sites," said Dr. Ashley Davies, JPL lead scientist for the experiment.
"This software can be used to track natural disasters that pose danger to populated areas, such as flooding and fires," said Rob Sherwood, JPL experiment manager. Future versions of the software also may be used to track dust storms on Mars, search for ice volcanoes on Europa, and track activity on Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io.
NASA's New Millennium Program developed both the satellite and the software. The Program is responsible for testing new technologies in space.
For more information on the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment on the Internet, visit: http://ase.jpl.nasa.gov
For more information on the New Millennium Program on the Internet, visit: http://nmp.jpl.nasa.gov
For information about the Earth Observing-1 spacecraft on the Internet, visit: http://eo1.gsfc.nasa.gov
For more information on JPL on the Internet, visit: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov
For more information on Goddard Space Flight Center on the Internet, visit: http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov
For information about NASA and agency programs on the Internet, visit: http://www.nasa.gov
JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Natalie Godwin (818) 354-0850
Gretchen Cook-Anderson (202) 358-0836
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.