NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is partnering with Microsoft’s Azure Quantum team to explore how it can communicate more efficiently with spacecraft. Compared to some of the hurdles the agency has overcome to put missions like Perseverance on Mars, staying in touch with those spacecraft might not seem so difficult. However, sending instructions to every mission the agency has on the go is its own logistical challenge.
NASA depends on the Deep Space Network, a series of radio antennae located across the US, Spain and Australia. It allows the agency to stay in constant contact with its spacecraft, even as the Earth rotates. Scheduling the use of that system is something NASA notes involves a lot of constraints. For example, not every dish in the network is equally capable of communicating with spacecraft that are on the edge of the solar system. What’s more, missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and Perseverance Rover put an increased load on the system due to the amount of high-fidelity data they need to transmit back to Earth.
As such, NASA has to devote considerable computing resources to prioritize and schedule the hundreds of communication requests its teams put in each week. And that’s where Microsoft thought it could help. The company applied some of the things it learned optimizing quantum algorithms to tackle NASA’s scheduling headache using classical computers. At the start of the project, it took two hours for the company to compile a DSN schedule. Using its Azure network, Microsoft created a schedule in 16 minutes. A further “custom solution” allowed it to make one in two minutes.
The ability to make schedules in minutes, as opposed to hours, is something Microsoft says will give NASA flexibility and allow it to be more agile as an organization. Microsoft says there's further work it needs to do before the system has all the features that JPL needs, but it could one day help the team as it prepares to launch more complex missions that involve journeys to the Moon and beyond the solar system.