Space Policy Directive-4: Establishment of the United States Space Force, signed last month by the President, created not just a new division of the Air Force, but a “United States Space Command.” The directive is clear: “Unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space and provide vital effects and capabilities to joint and coalition forces during peacetime and across the spectrum of conflict.” Putting aside the geopolitical concerns of a military operation hovering over the entire planet, it is still unclear how and where this “Space Command” will operate. However, one thing is certain — the Space Force could be a massive windfall for venture-backed robot startups.
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Almost concurrent with the executive order, NASA issued a request for a proposal to the commercial space industry for “human lunar landing systems.” In the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay. We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home, to not go back for another 50 years.” The Trump appointee, with little background in science and space exploration, boastfully promotes the lunar base as a possible staging ground for the future Space Command Center and deep space exploration, including human missions to Mars. The Space Force and its base could drive more than a trillion dollars of annual commercial revenue by 2040, a huge bump from today’s $350 billion marketplace (Morgan Stanley). According to most analysts the majority of these missions will be unmanned and operated by private contractors.
Operation “Beresheet,” which launched February 21st, provides a peek into the future of galactic expeditions with the collaboration of public and private interests. Startup Space IL partnered with government-backed Israel Aerospace Industries and SpaceX to launch the first ever commercial lander to the moon. The 350 pound, $95 million, spacecraft was funded largely by Israeli telecom industrialist and philanthropist Morris Kahn. By contrast, the last time NASA sent a lander to the moon it cost more than three billion dollars and weighed twice as much. The discounted price comes with some tradeoffs as Space IL’s founder, Yonatan Winetraub, reports, “In the Apollo days they got to the moon within two days, but it will take us about one and a half months,” That’s how it is if you don’t want to pay full price.” Once on the moon, Winetraub’s robot will measure the magnetic field buried under the surface in the hopes of better understanding the Universe’s formation. Beresheet is Hebrew for Genesis, the first chapter of the Bible recounting creation.
Renewed interest in the moon comes on the jubilee anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first giant leap for mankind. Bridenstine boldness to develop an American base on the surface follows China’s successful landing of an autonomous rover on the dark side of the astronomical body three months ago. While Bridenstine publicly congratulated his Chinese counterparts on their accomplishment, in the Pentagon the Chinese space robot raised serious national security concerns, accelerating the space race with artificial intelligence, robotics and a handful of humans.
This week the United States Air Force confirmed new upgrades across the entire fleet of autonomous systems in space to better fend off debris, hostile satellites, and even attacks. Michael Dickey of the Air Force Space Command, stated: “We have to give our mission systems an opportunity to participate in their own defense, give them a fighting chance. We’ve begun to introduce changes.” Dickey’s statement conjures up images of a 2007 Chinese laser missile system that hit an orbiting weather satellite, resulting in a treacherous field of projectiles. Dickey bluntly continued, “It’s not hard to imagine, if someone is shooting at you, you would maybe like to get out the line of fire and so creating some agility with our space systems becomes very important.”
The White House confirmed with the signing of the executive order the first $2 billion dollars of funding to the nascent sixth branch of the military. This budget comes on the heels of the Pentagon’s opening of its new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC). The JAIC birthed from an executive order as well to develop the American Artificial Intelligence Strategy. At a recent discussion with reporters Dana Deasy, the Department of Defense’s Chief Information Officer, introduced the media to the JAIC’s newly appointed director, Lt. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan. Deasy explained, “The [executive order] is paramount for our country to remain a leader in AI, and it will not only increase the prosperity of our nation, but also enhance our national security.” Deasy went further to remark that The National Defense Strategy aims to modernize its entire force to compete with growing AI and cyber risks from Russia and China, on Earth and in space. Deasy asserts that the center will work with many civilian partners, “The success of our AI initiatives will rely upon robust relationships with internal and external partners. Interagency, industry, our allies and the academic community will all play a vital role in executing our AI strategy.”
Lt General Shanahan concurred with Deasy, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of operationalizing AI across the department, and to do so with the appropriate sense of urgency and alacrity.” Director Shanahan further outlined his plan moving forward, “The JAIC will operate across the full AI application lifecycle, with emphasis on near-term execution and AI adoption. One of the JAIC’s most-important contributions over the long term will be establishing a common foundation enabled by enterprise cloud with particular focus on shared data repositories for useable tools, frameworks and standards and cloud … services.” He further emphasized the machine learning projects to coordinate with the U.S. Cyber Command and the fledging Space Force. In wrapping up the meeting, the Lt General took a deep breath, exclaiming, “We have a lot of work ahead of us, but there’s no time to waste.”