Software updates are a frequent occurrence in our digitally-driven lives. Microsoft issues software patches at least twice a month, while Apple releases a major version every few months alongside its regular updates. But when it comes to satellites, software updates are non-existent, or at least that was the case until recently.
On Earth, virtualization and software-driven everything has been revolutionizing IT practices and business models for the last two decades. Everywhere we look, across nearly every industry, software services have been decoupled from hardware while being controlled, configured and managed remotely.
While capabilities such as Software-defined Networks (SDN) and Software-defined Storage (SDS) have been readily accessible on Earth for some time now, Space payloads have remained limited and fixed. This means that the limited processing power that is launched with a satellite limits its adaptability to support changing application mixes over the lifetime of the spacecraft, which is often fifteen years or more.
But this reality is changing rapidly.
Commercialization drives change
Over the last few years, the realities of Space have changed. Governments have ended decades-long restrictions on commercial and private use of Space, while at the same time the proliferation of reusable rockets continues to drive launch costs down dramatically.
The privatization and commercialization of Space are driving the launch of new services and applications to leverage the new business opportunities created by the grand opening of the final frontier. “With the cost of launching satellites going down via reusable rockets, you need manufacturing costs to go down via mass production of generic satellites,” explains NSR analyst Carlos Placido. “As in terrestrial networks, hardware is becoming software in space as well.”
An essential element to support this change in the industry is a robust and resilient Space computing infrastructure to provide the backbone of new services and applications. High accessibility to increasing numbers of users and developers that promote global collaboration while dynamically supporting unique missions for users on Earth or in Space is required. It’s all very similar to the computing we are used to on Earth, enabling missions through software, upgrades, and powered through the cloud.
Enter Space grade computing
We have not yet seen the same advancement of computing infrastructure in Space as on Earth. The main reason for this gap is the harsh conditions found in Space, which are not electronics-friendly, to say the least. Issues such as radiation, zero gravity, and extreme temperature ranges eliminate the option of using off-the-shelf, made-for-Earth electronics in Space. A purpose-built solution is required.
We are encouraged to see new advances in satellite computing capabilities that are empowering the use of software in space. These advances include space-grade processors that deliver the robust processing power available on Earth combined with the capacity and storage required to support advanced software and computing requirements. Additionally, these capabilities enable Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) software and their associated applications to be injected into the satellites themselves so that decisions and actions can be taken quicker and on-orbit.
The result is Software-Empowered satellites – a decoupling of the satellite hardware and software that introduces the ability to configure and update both the satellite and their payloads remotely.
These new abilities are highly advantageous in a fast-changing market landscape in which new technologies are constantly evolving, and business dynamics are constantly in flux. With software-empowered capabilities, satellites can be quickly updated to reflect these changes, thereby ensuring ongoing, efficient use throughout their lifetime.
Immediate tangible benefits include:
Imagining the unimagined
Unlike the computing capabilities available on Earth, we have yet to scratch the surface of the benefits of having robust and resilient computing infrastructure in Space.
Cost reduction from standardization
Software-empowered satellites will drive the standardization of the software and hardware on multiple levels. This standardization of the software and different hardware components of a satellite will drive lower cost of ownership and will develop an entirely new ecosystem for software and hardware building blocks.
Redefining service agility
With improved computing capabilities, such as ML and AI, satellites can provide a much-enhanced level of service agility. In Earth Observation applications, for example, captured information can be processed and analyzed in Space, translating raw data into insights much faster than the traditional method of transferring all data back to gateway locations for processing and decision making. This enables timeliness of providing actionable information to be introduced as the new quality of service metric. This capability will have huge implications on the levels of services capable for fire detection, asset ground movement, and financial market applications, to name a few.
Extending effective satellite lifetime
Until recently, satellites were single-use “black box” devices. Similar to disposable cameras, if you run out of film or battery or if something breaks, game over. The ability to update and upgrade payloads reconfigure the use of limited spacecraft assets and issue maintenance patches on satellites has changed all this. Truly software-empowered satellites will serve as intelligent and autonomous infrastructure for Space-based applications and services – for the long term.
How we look at space-based communication systems, earth observation solutions, space tourism and even services such as cloud services in space will be different. Space will grow much beyond orbiting Earth and computing infrastructure will drive the expansion of mankind to the moon and other planets. We will explore those topics further in future blogs.
Computing as the driving force for the Space software revolution
While we place tremendous focus on how software-empowered spacecraft will support existing applications, consider the unforeseen applications that have not arisen yet. Many of the applications that will be mainstream in 2037, or 2032… or even 2027 are not known today. Unfortunately, spacecraft being designed and launched in the next three years will need to support this unknown application mix.
The start of software-empowered satellites will revolutionize everything we do in Space. From real-time modifications to satellite configurations to the ongoing enhancement of existing services over time.
All of this will only be possible with breakthroughs in the satellite computing infrastructure. Processing, storage and machine learning are the cornerstones of software-empowered satellites.