Given the vast distances a spacecraft travels on an interplanetary mission, Ella Atkins, director of the autonomous aerospace systems Lab at the University of Michigan and IEEE senior member, says the probes that venture into the far reaches of the solar system and beyond need to be engineered for adaptability, in order to run experiments over and beyond the original mission goals.
The ability to communicate remotely with a probe using limited power over the vast distances of space was demonstrated with the Galileo and Cassini missions. “Each had a moment when engineers were trying to figure out what to do next. This resulted in changes to software to enable the science to be done better and to correct problems in the hardware,” says Atkins. Cassini continued operating for almost 20 years, changing the way that scientists think about the solar system, before it was crashed into Saturn on 15 September 2017. It is this ability to adapt computer systems beyond their original design goals that defines modern space exploration.