Bringing artificial intelligence to the search for habitable planets

University partners with Spiral Blue for the TOLIMAN space telescope mission

A team led by astronomer Professor Peter Tuthill at the University of Sydney has announced a partnership with Sydney-based space technology company, Spiral Blue, for the TOLIMAN Space Telescope Mission. The TOLIMAN mission aims to detect potentially habitable worlds in our near solar neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system, just four light years away.

The collaboration combines Spiral Blue’s state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) expertise, enabled by its Space Edge Computer – an architecture that places the computational power on the spacecraft where it is most valuable – with the University of Sydney’s pioneering research in astronomy and exoplanet detection.

TOLIMAN will be the first space-based observatory ever launched attempting to recover data with enough precision to reveal planets around nearby stars. The payload is a 12.5cm space telescope now under construction and is scheduled to launch next year. The mission follows the success of an experiment designed by Professor Tuthill operating on similar principles aboard NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Professor Peter Tuthill.
Professor Peter Tuthill.

Professor Peter Tuthill, from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy in the School of Physics, said: “Using AI to process data coming from the Centauri star system will help open a new window onto the nearby Universe as we search for habitable planets.”

The 2023 launch of Spiral Blue’s latest computer in space, Space Edge One (SE-1), marked a historic milestone as the first Australian company to operate an edge computer in orbit. Edge computing is a recent development that brings computation of data closer to its source.

Spiral Blue recently published results of an AI application, Cloud Detect, from space aboard SE-1, processing satellite images at ultra-high speeds. Equipped with advanced AI capabilities, Spiral Blue’s Space Edge Computing technology enables real-time data processing and analysis in the challenging space environment, avoiding the expensive and restrictive bottleneck when all data must be recovered over radio link.

Professor Tuthill said: “Nobody is underestimating the challenge of this mission, but our innovative design incorporates new tricks. We aim to deliver results within five years.”

The TOLIMAN mission takes its name after one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system and is derived from ancient Arabic. It also stands for Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood, indicating the new approach to nearby exoplanet exploration and discovery.

New type of telescope

Central to the mission is the deployment of a new type of telescope that uses a “diffractive pupil” in which special optics spreads starlight captured from nearby stars into a complex flower-like pattern. Paradoxically, this makes it easier to detect ‘wobble’ in a star’s motion that shows the presence of orbiting planets.

The TOLIMAN space telescope is a low-cost, agile mission concept primarily funded by the Breakthrough Watch program, one of the Breakthrough Initiatives programs exploring big questions around life beyond Earth. TOLIMAN will look for planets orbiting stars in Centauri’s “Goldilocks zone”, where temperate surface conditions make liquid water possible.

The partnership between the University of Sydney and Spiral Blue has also been awarded the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre grant for Revolutionalising Commercial Space Computing Leveraging the Toliman Space Telescope Mission.

Through the partnership, Spiral Blue will provide its Space Edge Computers and AI technologies to enhance the data processing capabilities of the TOLIMAN Space Telescope. This will allow the University of Sydney’s scientists to efficiently analyse the images captured by the telescope in orbit and perform data reduction before downlink.

“We are proud to partner with the University of Sydney for the Toliman Mission,” Taofiq Huq, CEO of Spiral Blue, said. “Our advanced AI-enabled Space Edge Computers will revolutionise the way we process and analyse space data, pushing the boundaries of scientific discovery. Together with the University’s expertise in exoplanet research, we aim to unlock the secrets of potentially habitable worlds beyond our Solar System.”

The heart of the Spiral Blue space edge computer.

This partnership between Spiral Blue and the University of Sydney exemplifies the spirit of collaboration driving the future of space exploration. By combining resources, expertise, and emerging technologies, both organisations aim to make breakthrough discoveries and expand our understanding of the universe.

Professor Tuthill has a proven track record in designing high-precision instrumentation and projects for international astronomy projects. He is the only Australian scientist to have led direct instrument design work on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope project, which has heralded a new era in observational astronomy.

He worked on designing the NIRISS Aperture Masking Interferometry mode on the James Webb. This offers high spatial observational resolution, critical in the hunt for exoplanets.

The University last year signed a partnership with EnduroSat, the satellite company that will help deliver the Toliman telescope to space.

About Spiral Blue

Spiral Blue is enabling the next generation of Earth observation services with artificial intelligence and Space Edge Computing. Spiral Blue technology has applications in defence, city planning, utilities, and other industries. Founded in 2018, the company has recently launched its second generation of Space Edge Computer to orbit, the first Space Edge One, which is now beginning onboard application testing for customers.

About Breakthrough Watch

Breakthrough Watch is a global astronomical program aiming to identify and characterise Earth-sized, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri and other stars within 20 light years of Earth, in search of oxygen and other biosignatures. The program is run by an international team of experts in exoplanet detection and imaging.

Part of the Breakthrough Initiatives, Watch is funded by the Breakthrough Foundation established by Yuri and Julia Milner.