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Uni of Adelaide wins ESA space AI challenge

A University of Adelaide-led team has secured first place in a global AI competition organised by the European Space Agency (ESA). The Satellite Pose Estimation Challenge 2021, which concluded in March, saw international teams compete to build custom AI software that can estimate the pose (position and orientation) of a satellite in orbit using only an image.

In the competition, a dataset of labelled computer-generated images was provided to each team to train their AI models. The models were then tested and benchmarked for accuracy on real photographs of a scale model of the satellite. Machine learning researchers refer to this idea as solving the domain gap problem — training AI on labelled data from one source (domain) and then successfully deploying it on unlabelled data in another domain.

The subject of the challenge, a microwave oven-sized satellite named Tango, was launched by the Swedish Space Corporation in 2010 and was shut down permanently in 2013.

Team TangoUnchained – a collaboration between the University’s Sentient Satellites Lab at the University’s Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML), and European space startup Blackswan Space – competed against 35 other groups to place first and third in the competition’s two categories, repeating the University’s previous success placing first in the 2019 edition of the challenge. The team used the Phoenix supercomputer in the University’s High Performance Computing service.

Team members included research student Mohsi Jawaid, postdoctoral researcher Dr Bo Chen and SmartSat CRC Professorial Chair of Sentient Satellites Professor Tat-Jun Chin from AIML and Augustinas Zinys and Marius Klimavicius from Blackswan Space.

The ability of AI systems to accurately determine the pose of satellites, spacecraft, orbital debris and asteroids is crucial for autonomous spacecraft, or in missions where direct human control is costly and/or error prone.

AIML research student Mohsi Jawaid said that AI-based computer vision systems provide a compelling sensing and perception solution for autonomous space missions.

“And it’s not just satellites, it could be any space bodies, space junk, asteroids. You want to get accurate vision of it so you can approach it safely.”

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