Amazon's Alexa and Cisco's Webex to fly on Artemis I Moon mission
When NASA's Artemis spacecraft lifts off on its uncrewed circumlunar mission this year, it will have its own voice-activated Alexa digital assistant and Webex video conference technology aboard installed in a Lockheed Martin demo pack called Callisto.
The last time astronauts visited the Moon, each of their spacecraft had one and only one computer aboard that was hundreds of times slower and had tens of thousands of times less memory than a pocket calculator from the year 2000.
NASA's Orion spacecraft was built in a time when computers have become so common that they've often been reduced to the status of components rather than devices, but the two main flight computers aboard the spacecraft are still far from supercomputers. Designed for reliability, they use processor chips that date back to 2002, which is pretty much the Jurassic Age of cybernetics.
However, Orion is making up for this in terms of the sophistication of its interfaces. Not only is it relying more on digital displays and touchscreens, but, with Callisto, it's moving into the realm of digital assistants and video calls. Led by Lockheed Martin, which provided the electronics that have been hardened against vibration and radiation, Callisto was developed with Amazon contributing a version of Alexa with added algorithms to handle noise from engines and pumps, as well as reverberations from metallic surfaces within the cabin, and Cisco provided its Webex video collaboration applications.
Named after the mythical follower of Artemis, the Greek goddess of wild animals and the hunt, Callisto will allow flight crews to communicate with Earth and call up information and control paired devices by voice command. Because there's a two-second delay in round-trip signals between Earth and the Moon, and due to the unreliable nature of communications in space, this requires more than just installing Alexa into the spacecraft. Instead, Alexa has to be able to work on its own while out of contact with the large internet databases that its terrestrial version depends upon.
In addition to testing Callisto during its historic mission, engineers from the partner companies are developing a virtual crew experience at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston that will allow operators to interact with Callisto from the Mission Control Center, and provide access to flight status and telemetry.
According to the partners, Callisto will also allow members of the public to follow the mission through Alexa-enabled devices, and Webex will provide access for STEM educators and remote classroom teaching events. In addition, the technology will allow astronauts to retrieve information from the internet, stay in touch with their families, and even act as a companion on long missions.
The video below introduces the Callisto experiment.