Image: NASA

The last few months have been exciting times for space enthusiasts around the globe. Last fall, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft momentarily touched down on asteroid Bennu and collected samples of its surface during a “touch-and-go” millions of miles from Earth. In February, NASA successfully landed its latest rover on Mars and another roving bot is set to join Perseverance on our celestial neighbor later this year. Coding is an integral part of modern space exploration and educational pathways could help aspiring scientists enable tomorrow’s missions with artificial intelligence, machine learning and more.

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“Coding has been a part of space exploration since its inception and will only continue to play a more crucial role,” said Sarah Guthals, Ph.D., a principal program manager for developer relations at Microsoft. “Software is enabling us to explore, discover and learn about our planet and universe safely.”

As a result of these efforts, Guthals said developers worldwide are able to map asteroids to “discover what materials might be present in which locations for future collection,” predict radiation to protect astronauts on the moon, and provide open source projects with access to “petabytes of Earth science data” to study our home planet.

Coding in the final frontier

In September, Microsoft in partnership with NASA announced a number of coding lessons, modules and learning paths focused on space exploration. There are also educational offerings based around the “role of Python in space exploration” as well as a space-focused introduction to the programming language.

“This course not only gives you an introduction to one of the most popular and used programming languages; it also introduces you to innovation like AI and ML and the tools professional developers use, such as Visual Studio Code and Python notebooks,” Guthals said.

“What better way to be authentically introduced to an entire industry than through the inspiring perspective of space exploration?” she continued.

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Within this introduction to Python, aspiring coders are able to gain a better understanding of NASA’s Artemis program, which is set to place a man and a woman on the moon by 2024. Other pathways allow STEM students to use data science and coding to help create solutions for exploration challenges ranging from strategies for rock sample collection to forecasting rocket launches years in advance.

“NASA is pleased to work with external organizations to create innovative, high quality offerings for students,” said Rob LaSalvia, the partnerships manager for the Office of STEM Engagement at NASA. “Through our collective work with partners we focused on making meaningful impacts in the lives of students and teachers and creating the Artemis generation.”

Exploring with AI and machine learning

In the 21st century spacefaring age, AI and machine learning are central to a wide range of spacefaring efforts. Guthals detailed a few specific examples including a dedicated team at JPL that uses machine learning to “support instrument autonomy of rockets to enable further exploration of Mars” and “algorithms that connect weather and agriculture here on Earth.”

“The data-driven machine learning and artificial intelligence solutions impact us in almost every way,” she added.

Space agencies around the globe have announced lofty future exploration missions. This includes returning humans to the moon for the first time in decades, creating long-term crewed settlements on the lunar surface, and preliminary crewed missions to Mars en route to becoming a multiplanetary species.

With the reprioritized focus on near-space exploration, the time could be ripe for individuals seeking to pursue a coding-based career pathway in this field.

Guthals also provided some advice for people interested in a career in coding who are hoping to use these skills toward space exploration efforts including ancillary opportunities.

“Learning to code is only a part of it, discovering your passion and using code as the tool to solve a problem within your passion is the key,” Guthals said. “Pick a challenge and use your coding journey to creatively develop ways to address that challenge, use your whole-self and your interests in other areas to discover something new.”

For people who are interested in finance, Guthals suggested using machine learning algorithms to develop predictions “to ensure a compliant, safe and on-time construction of the Space Launch System.” She also said that people interested in clothing design could explore ways the space agency is developing new spacesuits to “sustain the harsh environment of space while allowing for mobility and comfort.”

For people who don’t necessarily “want to become an astronaut or work at NASA,” Guthals said “the inspiration of how code is used” to accomplish space exploration missions “can help inspire you to apply the same curiosity and creativity to any problem that you’re passionate about.”

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