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Robots Will Navigate the Moon With Maps They Make Themselves

Astrobotic’s autonomous navigation will help lunar landers, rovers, and drones find their way on the moon

7 min read
A drone running Astrobotic’s navigation software mapped a lava tube in Iceland.
Drone’s-Eye View: A drone running Astrobotic’s navigation software mapped a lava tube in Iceland.
Image: Astrobotic

Neil Armstrong made it sound easy. “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eaglehas landed,” he said calmly, as if he had just pulled into a parking lot. In fact, the descent of the Apollo 11 lander was nerve-racking. As the Eagle headed to the moon’s surface, Armstrong and his colleague Buzz Aldrin realized it would touch down well past the planned landing site and was heading straight for a field of boulders. Armstrong started looking for a better place to park. Finally, at 150 meters, he leveled off and steered to a smooth spot with about 45 seconds of fuel to spare.

“If he hadn’t been there, who knows what would have happened?” says Andrew Horchler, throwing his hands up. He’s sitting in a glass-walled conference room in a repurposed brick warehouse, part of Pittsburgh’s Robotics Row, a hub for tech startups. This is the headquarters of space robotics company Astrobotic Technology. In the coming decades, human forays to the moon will rely heavily on robotic landers, rovers, and drones. Horchler leads a team whose aim is ensuring those robotic vessels—including Astrobotic’s own Peregrine lander—can perform at least as well as Armstrong did.

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The World’s Largest Camera Is Nearly Complete

The future heart of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will soon make its way to Chile

3 min read
A large black cylinder with a glass lens in front rests on a sturdy white structure in a bright room.

The LSST camera, eventually bound for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, sits on its stand in a Bay Area clean room.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The world’s largest camera sits within a nondescript industrial building in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

If all goes well, this camera will one day fit into the heart of the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. For the last seven years, engineers have been crafting the camera in a clean room at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. In May 2023, if all goes according to plan, the camera will finally fly to its destination, itself currently under construction in the desert highlands of northern Chile.

Building a camera as complex as this requires a good deal of patience, testing, and careful engineering. The road to that flight has been long, and there’s still some way to go before the end is in sight.

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Lab Revisits the Task of Putting Common Sense in AI

New nonprofit Basis hopes to model human reasoning to inform science and public policy

5 min read
ai hand and human hand touching pointer fingers
iStock

The field of artificial intelligence has embraced deep learning—in which algorithms find patterns in big data sets—after moving on from earlier systems that more explicitly modeled human reasoning. But deep learning has its flaws: AI models often show a lack of common sense, for example. A new nonprofit, Basis, hopes to build software tools that advance the earlier method of modeling human reasoning, and then apply that method toward pressing problems in scientific discovery and public policy.

To date, Basis has received a government grant and a donation of a few million dollars. Advisors include Rui Costa, a neuroscientist who heads the Allen Institute in Seattle, and Anthony Philippakis, the chief data officer of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. In July, over tacos at the International Conference on Machine Intelligence, I spoke with Zenna Tavares, a Basis cofounder, and Sam Witty, a Basis research scientist, about human intelligence, problems with academia, and trash collection. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Take the Lead on Satellite Design Using Digital Engineering

Learn how to accelerate your satellite design process and reduce risk and costs with model-based engineering methods

1 min read
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