JMU’s SONATE-2 Nanosatellite to Launch in March 2024, Testing Cutting-Edge AI Tech in Space
Germany’s Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg is preparing to launch the SONATE-2 nanosatellite in March 2024, with the goal of testing advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies in space. Led by aerospace engineer Professor Hakan Kayal, the team behind SONATE-2 aims to enhance autonomous space exploration capabilities through the use of AI-trained hardware and software onboard the satellite.
The unique aspect of this mission lies in the fact that the AI training will take place directly on board the nanosatellite. Usually, the training is conducted on Earth using powerful computers. However, for missions to unknown celestial bodies such as asteroids, training on the ground is not feasible due to lack of data. Therefore, Kayal’s team seeks to explore the potential of training AI directly in space to expedite the detection of interesting objects and phenomena on asteroids.
SONATE-2 will be equipped with four cameras to capture images necessary for training the AI. The initial training will involve familiarizing the AI with conventional geometric patterns on Earth’s surface, enabling it to detect anomalies independently.
Beyond AI testing, the nanosatellite will also feature other advanced technologies to be tested in space. These include a system for automatically detecting and recording lightning, as well as an electric propulsion system developed in collaboration with the University of Stuttgart.
Designed as a 6U+ cubesat, SONATE-2 is roughly the size of a shoebox and weighs approximately 12 kilograms. The project has received €2.6 million in funding from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Assuming all goes according to plan, SONATE-2 will launch aboard a SpaceX rocket from the US West Coast and will be operated from JMU’s Mission Control Centre in Würzburg. The team anticipates an operational lifespan of one year but hopes that the nanosatellite will continue to function beyond that timeframe.
The development of SONATE-2 involved a team of six individuals, with Dr. Oleksii Balagurin leading the project. Numerous students were also actively involved, contributing as research assistants or incorporating the mission into their final theses. Even during the operational phase, students will have the opportunity to participate by assisting in software testing and implementation.
With SONATE-2, JMU Würzburg aims to push the boundaries of small satellite missions, paving the way for more autonomous and efficient space exploration. By harnessing cutting-edge AI technology and involving students in the project, the university is fostering the next generation of space scientists and engineers.