Until now the dream of powerful data processing in space has been limited mostly to the science fiction of Star Trek and Star Wars, but a combination of declining satellite launch costs and emerging computing technology is about to make colocation data centers above the clouds a reality.
“As the cost of building and launching satellites continues to drop, melding IT concepts with satellite operations to bring data center services into Earth orbit and beyond is emerging as the next big thing,” wrote Editor in Chief of Space IT Bridge, Doug Mohney, in Data Center Frontier last summer.
Skyrocketing Satellites Orbiting the Earth
While there were just under 5,000 active satellites (less than half still providing functional value) in orbit in 2019, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, that number is about to skyrocket with a record 1,200 satellites launched in 2020.
Low-cost reusable rocket technology is fueling the growth of communications, navigation, weather, observational, astronomical and biosatellites, most in low earth orbit, speeding along at approximately 17,000 miles per hour about 1,200 miles or less above sea level.
New commercial space companies want to bring edge computing, server colocation and virtual applications above the clouds to launches in 2021 and beyond.
“We are developing an environment that will let terrestrial datacenter grade computers operate in space. We won’t get everywhere immediately, but opening the door for having current computing technology in space is game-changing,” said Rick Ward, CTO, OrbitsEdge, a company based on Florida’s Space Coast.
If every planned satellite project gets off the launch pad, some 100,00 satellites will be in low earth orbit, many of them offering the new Space-as-a-Service or Space Infrastructure-as-a-Service concept.
Space Infrastructure-as-a-Service is the New Frontier
Micro-data center technology makes it possible to offer Space Infrastructure-as-a-Service with multi-tenants sharing server hardware on a data center colocation in space. Edge computing on satellites in low earth orbit will allow for data, such as satellite images, to be processed closer to where the information is being produced.
Satellites are already being launched that can monitor next-generation IoT applications on earth. Loft Orbital, is a Infrastructure-as-a-Service company, that has upcoming missions to fly a variety of customer payloads, including a demonstration for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Blackjack program, multiple Internet of Things payloads for Eutelsat, and a hyperspectral imager for the United Arab Emirates government.
“Loft has developed the hardware and software product stack that enables us to fly a wide range of payloads on a standard bus design,” said Pierre-Damien Vaujour, co-CEO of Loft Orbital.
OrbitsEdge, which looks to launch its first satellite in late 2021, wants to accelerate the commercialization of space by providing micro-data centers that allow organizations to economically access and rapidly analyze vast amounts of data in space.
Launching True Processing Power Into Space
The surprising reality of processing power in current space technology is that your smartphone has a lot more processing speed than the objects rotating the earth. Traditionally space projects took years to get to launch, assuring that by design, older technology would be built in.
Reliability was paramount so processors were underclocked as a precaution. The result is the RAD 750, a current popular space processor, which debuted in 2001 and was launched into space in 2005 for the first time.
Ward says the “processor is a PowerPC 750 which came out in 1997. The processor is clocked down to 200MHz. This package was reported to have been used 150 times as of 2010 and it will fly on the Mars 2020 rover. The cost for a RAD 750 is $200,000 and up depending on requirements. This for an amount of processing that is roughly a thirtieth of what I have on my current phone.”
OrbitsEdge SatFrame satellites, on the other hand, will be equipped with HPE Edgeline EL8000 Converged Edge system, providing 1,000 times more computer power than current space-grade systems. The SatFrame rugged bus features a 19-inch server rack with available data center colocation space for 5U of hardware.
Global connectivity provider Lacuna Space has already launched low-cost cubesats, about the size of a shoebox, that orbit the earth 14 times a day receiving data from battery powered IoT sensors around the globe.
“We are continuing to push the boundaries of what’s technically possible with extremely low power IoT technology with each generation of IoT gateways we are putting into space,” said Rob Spurrett, CEO of Lacuna Space.
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