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Not Azure thing: Using MS's Quantum to schedule chats with spacecraft on the DSN

Oh boy

While Microsoft's Azure Quantum continues to hover between vapourware and hardware – a state of quantum if you will – NASA boffins have been putting tech inspired by the research to work in spacecraft communications.

As for those that think the Moon landings never happened, just wait until you hear about scalable quantum computing.

In this instance, the fabled hardware is not being put to use by engineers and scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Instead, the team is looking for ways of optimising communication with missions via the very finite resource of the Deep Space Network (DSN).

The DSN is a network of large radio antennas spread around the Earth and is used to keep in touch with spacecraft as far away as the Voyagers as well as new kid on the block, the James Webb Space Telescope.

The problem is one of scheduling: all the missions need to communicate and, according to Microsoft, this results in "several hundred weekly requests when each spacecraft is visible to the antenna."

The optimisation problem is not an unusual one, and one faced by many industries. Sure, one can throw algorithms utilising methods such as the Monte Carlo simulation at the problem, but the possibilities afforded by quantum techniques are intriguing (even if one must still turn to traditional hardware in absence of much in the way of scalable real-world quantum chippery.

"Quantum computers," said Microsoft in a lengthy set of case studies [PDF], "can naturally represent random distributions as quantum states, and therefore have the potential to provide better solutions than today's classical optimisation algorithms."

As for JPL, when the Microsoft team started, it took a run-time of two hours to produce a schedule. Using Azure Quantum brought the time down to 16 minutes, and a custom solution brought things down further to approximately two minutes. Being able to spit out multiple candidate schedules makes for more agile mission planning.

While Azure Quantum remains resolutely in preview and scalable quantum computers have yet to trouble reality, it's heartening to see some of the results of all that research being used to solve problems both on and off world. ®

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