Beyond the Stratosphere: Computing in Orbit

Beyond the Stratosphere: Computing in Orbit

The new space age promises a not-so-distant future where humans explore and leverage space’s vast resources. But one doesn’t have to envision robots building data centers on the moon (check out Part I in this series) or the human colonization of Mars. Many space applications are more of an axiomatic evolution of what’s already happening in space, particularly in low Earth orbit. 

Clouds in orbit

Alongside the commercialization of space, the cost of launch has dropped dramatically, and small satellites have proliferated. More and more data is being generated in low Earth orbit with use cases ranging from monitoring climate change to predicting supply chains or detecting gas pipeline leaks

Yet despite the skyrocketing rise in space data, nearly all of it is stored and processed on Earth.

Avi Shabtai, the CEO of Ramon.Space, a company developing space resilient computing technology to bring Earth-like computing to space, compares the current data model to analog film. “It’s like 35mm cameras, where you take an image, store it, and then go to the shop and wait to develop it,” he said. “Today’s satellites first must pass a ground station to send the information to Earth. Then, someone has to retrieve that data and only then do they start to analyze it. It can take two hours, two days, or two weeks.” 

Some companies have squeezed the time frame of insights to just a few hours by deploying a huge fleet of satellites alongside an expansive global ground segment. But according to Shabtai, much of the data doesn’t need to be transmitted to Earth at all. “Ninety-nine percent of satellite images of the ocean will be of empty waters,” he said. They hold no value for those tracking ship movements, glacial changes, or whale migrations.

To address this issue, Ramon.Space is building the storage and computing capabilities to allow analytics in orbit. In-orbit computing could analyze satellite images in space, sending only the results to Earth. This model could provide critical insights in near real-time (potentially life-saving when detecting something like a gas leak) and relieve the crowded communication to ground stations, which is already throttled. 

But there is more to it. Establishing storage and computing infrastructure in orbit would open up possibilities for new space data applications. 

For Shabtai, this is an evolution toward in-orbit computing that he sees as intuitive, simply repeating what we’ve done with intercontinental fiber connectivity on Earth and bringing it to space. While clearly one can’t connect to satellites using fiber optic cables, Shabtai is positive about the future of fiber free space optics and how that will enable satellites to move data between them, ultimately creating a ring of connectivity around our planet with significant storage and computing junctions.

A space economy

If the “build the infrastructure and the applications will come” attitude of Shabtai sounds similar to the cloud and edge computing, it’s because it is. “I’m not sure what that future killer application will be,” said Shabtai, “but just like the advent of the cloud, people will come up with incredible ideas, and we’ll see space applications impacting life on Earth.” 

Already, all major cloud players have launched space data programs hoping to capitalize on the growing hordes of satellites and the new ways companies are leveraging Earth observation data and space-born data services. Experts suggest most businesses should start exploring how remote-sensing satellites could inform better decision making.

Yet monetizing the space economy is not straightforward. “For a business case for hardware in space, you need to be in orbit for a relatively long time,” said Shabtai. “You need to fly somewhere in the range of seven to 10 years, so you need to build space-tolerant solutions.” 

Shabtai refers to the environmental challenges of space radiation and the extreme temperature fluctuations in orbit. Traditionally, space computing was kept minimal due to its volatility, and radiation hardening techniques have required lengthy, expensive cycles. Now, companies are increasingly using “Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS)” components in space, often products classified for automotive or industrial use cases, with hardware and software redundancy techniques to protect from harsh phenomena in space.

Still, for a space-born data economy, Shabtai sees a needed golden mean in Ramon.Space’s solution, combining custom silicon with virtual radiation hardening techniques. A so-to-say built-for-space COTS. 

“The goal is to create “Space Off the Shelf,” where the hard work is in the design, not the manufacturing,” he said. 

Space off the shelf

Thomas Boone, a senior technologist at Western Digital, is exploring a similar concept for next-generation memories. An expert in the physics of semiconductors in optoelectronic devices, he’s spent his career advancing novel ways of storing data. 

Boone joined the space industry by chance. While working at a company developing Magnetic Random Access Memory (MRAM) devices, Boone was asked to give a technical presentation at a military base. “I was whisked into a room with lot of scientists, but I had no idea why I was there,” he recalled. After the presentation, he contracted a government-funded project to support the development of a high-performance space computer. 

That was his unexpected entrance into aerospace, and he never looked back. Today at Western Digital, Boone is working in the research department, exploring novel memory applications for space. 

“DRAM and flash storage devices use electrons to represent ones and zeros, making them susceptible to charged particles in space [radiation],” explained Boone. “Yet all the emerging memory technologies are intrinsically radiation-hardened because they are not charged-based. MRAM is stored in magnetic spin, Resistive RAM uses filaments, and Phase Change RAM is also similar, using crystalline structures.”

Boone sees an opportunity for these memories to play an important role in the future of space data infrastructure, combining their superior speeds and innate ability to keep data from fudging in space.  

“We have the ability to control these memories and design and code them to support a customer’s space application,” said Boone, “and we [Western Digital] have the manufacturing ability to take that initial investment and create a product that will become a future commodity.” 

With the space economy expected to generate more than $1 trillion by 2040, everyone is eyeing space use cases. “Building upon these new memories could help open a whole new world of applications and possibilities in space,” said Boone. 

The next frontier

Since the time of Aristotle, we’ve lived the aphorism of “Ubi societas, ibi ius,” roughly translated to: Where there is a society, there is law. Yet as Christopher Stott, the CEO of a company building the first lunar data center (read more in Part I) pointed out, “Today, wherever there are people, there is data.”

With more people and tech entering space, space data centers may be more of a necessary evolution than fantasy. Until then, one thing is sure: Space is the next frontier for data. 

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