The Growing Role of Artificial Intelligence in Space Exploration

Tuesday 2 October 2018, 18:00 – 19:00

Location: Bremen Exhibition & Conference Center – DLR Hall


Artificial Intelligence is playing an increasing role in not only our everyday lives but also the space sector where AI has the potential to revolutionize almost every aspect of space exploration. This talk begins by describing a number of success stories highlighting the tremendous impact of Artificial Intelligence: over a dozen years of operations of the Autonomous Sciencecraft on EO-1 and Sensorweb tracking volcanoes, flooding and wildfires, Machine Learning to triage enormous data streams in radio (V-FASTR) and visual (i-PTF) astronomy, Automated Targeting onboard the MER and MSL rovers (AEGIS), automatic semantic indexing of science features (Mars Target Encyclopedia), and automation of data management for Rosetta Orbiter operations. Finally, we describe how AI is critical to future mission concepts to search for life beyond Earth: a Europa Submersible to hunt for life on under-ice oceans of Europa, and an interstellar mission to explore distant solar systems.



Leon Alkalai

Manager, Office of Strategic Planning,

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology,

United States




Full Bio

Leon Alkalai is a JPL Fellow (2014) and is a Full Member of the International Academy of Astronautics (2005). He is currently the Manager of the JPL Office of Strategic Planning, responsible for developing a long-term vision and strategic plan for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, developing and maintaining strategic partnerships and developing new pathways for the future of the laboratory.

Leon Alkalai received his PhD in Computer Science from UCLA in 1989 and has been working at JPL ever since. For the first 14 years of his career Leon was a leader in Advanced Avionics Systems, Micro-Systems, Micro/Nano Spacecraft and related technologies. He led JPL’s Center for Integrated Space Microsystems (CISM) which was developing highly integrated “Systems on A Chip” and pioneering new micro and nano satellites. For the past 15 years, Leon has been in the forefront of JPL’s competed mission’s project formulation as a Manager and a Business Capture Lead. Leon was the successful Capture Lead for both the GRAIL mission to the Moon: awarded in 2007 and launched in 2011; and then the InSight mission to Mars: awarded in 2012 and launched in May of 2018. Both competitions were part of NASA’s Discovery Program in Solar System Exploration. In 2012, Leon received the NASA Individual Distinguished Achievement Medal for the successful formulation of the GRAIL mission to map the gravity field of the Moon. Leon also led JPL’s Discovery proposal (2016) to explore and map the surface of Venus using advanced radar technology. In the past 3 years, Leon has also been leading a new pioneering effort at JPL to formulate the next robotic mission to explore the Interstellar Medium (ISM), following the detection of the solar Heliopause by the Voyager-1 robotic spacecraft (2013). Leon also leads JPL’s Medical Engineering Forum (MEF) a pilot project to apply space technology to medical engineering.

Leon Alkalai is also a successful entrepreneur and a consultant in the field of advanced technologies solutions, start-up ventures.



Steve Ankuo Chien

Senior Research Scientist,

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology,

United States

Full Bio

Dr. Steve Chien is a Head of the Artificial Intelligence Group at JPL and a Senior Research Scientist. He has led the deployment of AI software to a wide range of missions including: Autonomous Sciencecraft on EO-1, Earth Observing Sensorweb, WATCH on MER, the IPEX cubesat, and Decision support for Science planning and Automated Data/Downlink Management for ESA’s Rosetta. He is currently supporting the development of an onboard scheduler for the Mars 2020 rover mission as well as mission analysis and scheduling technologies for the Europa Clipper mission. Beyond his Dr. Chien’s individual involvement as highlighted above, the Artificial Intelligence Group he heads has played a key role in AI-based scheduling for NASA’ Deep Space Network and the AEGIS autonomous targeting system onboard the MER and MSL rovers.

Dr. Chien has received numerous awards for these efforts. In 1995 he received the Lew Allen Award for Excellence, JPLs highest award recognizing outstanding technical achievements by JPL personnel in the early years of their careers. He has been recognized four times in the NASA Software of the Year competition (1999, 1999, 2005, and 2011). He has received four NASA Medals for his work in AI for Space (1997, 2000, 2007, 2015). In 2011 He was awarded the inaugural AIAA Intelligent Systems Award, for his contributions to Spacecraft Autonomy. In 2015 He was awarded a JPL Magellan Award as well as the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for his contributions to automated science scheduling for ESA’s Rosetta mission.