AI and cutting-edge technology for in-orbit research

Cristina Raimondo

Interview with Colonel Walter Villadei.

A little over 50 years after the Moon landing, what are the challenges awaiting us in the short and long term?

First of all, let’s remember that the exploration of new environments has taken centuries and sometimes millennia throughout human history. Humans began their journey into space just 60 years ago, with Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961, and they have continued this adventure incessantly ever since. What are the challenges ahead? In the short term, making the space economy sustainable, with a permanent and extensive human presence around the Earth. We have to think in terms of everyday activities. In the long term, we will certainly have to extend the capability of flying further into deep space. Exploration is a primary need. The moon, Mars and then who knows.

What technology will we have to use? 

Today we are witnessing a crossover between different domains. At one time, space took its technology from the military world, while in the New Space Economy, other worlds are moving together, with, for example, an increasingly close interaction between automotive and aerospace sectors. But there are many challenges, such as the need for more effective and efficient propulsion, both for flight in the atmosphere and in space; innovative materials, which will perhaps be created in space, with self-repairing and shielding capabilities, for deep space flight. But technological development must also be accompanied by major investments in scientific research, without which there can be no real innovation.

What is the role of AI today and how can it be used in the future?

Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and digital twins are the future within the future. So-called Deep-Tech, with enormous potential that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Think of the film ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ or the science fiction filmography! The human race has always imagined itself in this adventure accompanied and assisted by sophisticated ‘robots’. The active and ‘intelligent’ interaction between humans and ‘machines’ opens up extraordinary scenarios for space exploration. Direct support for crews, increasing the safety of future missions, for example by carrying out continuous predictive checks on the various systems through health monitoring algorithms.

What role do private players perform?

A fundamental role. They are the driving force that has revolutionised the sector in recent years. Space is of fundamental strategic importance and therefore the role of governments and agencies will not disappear. However, the private sector’s role has underlined a focus on parameters of efficiency, sustainability and market competition, with inevitable improvements in the technological solutions available. Think of the recovery of SpaceX’s launcher stages; Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, or Axiom’s first commercial space station. These are the major players who are promoting the space economy in low orbits. Institutions will also benefit from this.

What is Italy’s role in this area, and in particular in aerospace research and the development of commercial space flight?

Italy has a heritage of history and expertise that enables it to play a leading role. What is needed, however, is great commitment and a systemic vision. Within our relatively small capacity, the Italian Air Force has signed agreements in this sector with TAS-I, the country’s main industrial concern in this area, with the Emilia-Romagna Region for possible synergies between crossover domains, and above all with the CNR, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council) precisely because commercial spaceflight will enable our researchers and scientists to expand their activities in microgravity. In short, Italy has what it takes to be one of the world’s main gateways to in-orbit research, with undoubted advantages in terms of economic benefits and technological development.