The New Millennium Program's Space Technology 6 (ST6) Project hosts two experimental technologies, Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment (Sciencecraft) and Inertial Stellar Compass (Compass), to be flight tested in the harsh "laboratory" of space. When successfully validated, these technologiesequipped with artificial intelligence capabilitieswill improve a spacecraft's ability to:
- make intelligent decisions on what information to gather and what to send back to the ground
- determine its attitude and adjust its pointing (where it is aimed)
These tasks, performed by the spacecraft without continuous commands or guidance from the ground, are significant "firsts." Their autonomous capabilities will revolutionize missions of the future.
Sciencecraft technology is able to pick out interesting features for scientific observation, recognize areas where changes have occurred, and choose what data to send back to Earth for analysis. Currently, all raw (unprocessed) data is returned. Scientists have to search through it all and select what is significant. Sciencecraft technology will reduce the amount of raw data by at least one tenth. This is a form of "intelligent compression."
Compass technology keeps a spacecraft on course by providing attitude information to keep it stable and accurately pointing. It also helps the spacecraft recover from unexpected events that may affect it. And, the small size of the Compass system is an important feature. Smaller space vehicles planned for the future can't support large solar arrays or power energy-hungry devices. They need to be equipped with miniaturized systems that provide superior performance but use very little power. Compass uses approximately one third of the power of equivalent systems.
The experimental technologies of ST6 are expected to reduce or eliminate the need for continuous ground control. This will cut costs and allow more mission resources to be used for science goals.