AI Guides Autonomous Aircraft to Help NASA Understand Lava Lakes
published during a waning crescent moon.

NASA scientists recently received a helpful assist from a smart and savvy researcher—artificial intelligence.

We already know robots, probes, and rovers are crucial to gathering important information about space, but they generally don’t work autonomously—they carry out instructions programmed into them or delivered remotely. But artificial intelligence is starting to change that.

Back in late January, the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia started erupting. This volcano is rare because its crater contains an active lava lake. When a crack began opening up in the volcano, NASA scientists clamored to get a look into the lava-filled caldera, especially because the forceful eruption changed the shape of the volcano. They turned to the Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) spacecraft that has been observing and imaging Earth landscapes since 2000. But they didn’t need to direct the satellite’s attention to Erta Ale—it was already there.


EO-1 Satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL

EO-1’s artificial intelligence system picked up a signal from another satellite that spotted the eruption and made the decision to gather footage of the volcano, which gave scientists a jump on gathering information and images. According to NASA, the images were “already processed and on the ground” by the time researchers asked for them.

This isn’t the first time EO-1 and its artificial intelligence, the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment (ASE), have gathered real-time data and images of natural disasters. ASE helped scientists study the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which wreaked havoc on European flights for weeks. The ASE’s sensors identified early signs of the eruption and notified NASA scientists. It did the same for the deadly Thailand floods in 2011. The ASE’s sensors are connected to a network ground sensors, and in addition to facilitating communication between them, ASE decides which information or events to hone in on.


Erta Ale lava lake. Credit: NASA/GSFC/JPL-Caltech/Ashley Davies

Initially, the EO-1 and ASE were only commissioned to operate for a year, but both proved so helpful that NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey decided to pool their resources to keep the missing going. ASE controlled the satellite for the entire 12-year mission and based on what it has achieved, it’s easy to see and growing role for AI in both earth and space missions. The most significant advantage of the ASE is time—instead of it taking weeks for scientists to receive data, they can make real-time requests and can receive data in days, or even hours.


EO-1 infographic. Credit: NASA/PL

ASE principal investigator Steve Chine calls the system a “milestone in A.I application” and ASE lead scientist Ashley Davies believes there are countless advantages and applications for “putting some scientific smarts onboard a spacecraft.” With that kind of endorsement, we can’t wait to see what kind of genius artificial intelligence bestows on future space missions.