Space upstart plans public cloud in low Earth orbit

Why design a bespoke satellite when you could run a workload on a virtual satellite?

Last week we talked to a space startup that wants to load satellites with server virtualization tool XenServer so they can run virtual machines (VMs), which sounded intriguing enough that we decided to learn more.

And we’re glad we did, because this is a more-than-interesting development in both computing and commercial use of space.

The company plotting to put virtual machines in space is called Vector Space Systems and is already hard at work on its own rockets. It's smallest vehicle is the “Vector-R” and has been designed to lift payloads of up to 60kg to low-Earth orbit. Vector thinks the rocket is simple enough it can launch 100 of them each year.

Today, satellites are mostly bespoke, so to keep up with a hundred-a-year launch cadence, Vector’s also designed a “GalacticSky satellite hardware and payload compute environment”, a satellite hardware platform.

As explained to The Register by Shaun Coleman, the GM of the GalacticSky unit of Vector, the design results in satellites “about the size of a loaf of bread” but still packing two discrete computers and all the radios needed to communicate with Earth, plus useful tools like cameras that satellite-users need.

One of the computers runs a real-time OS on ARM or PowerPC silicon and gets the job of keeping the satellite humming. The other will be air-gapped [vacuum-gapped? – Ed] from the main board and will offer “x86 Intel-based, multi-core hardware including several terabytes of high-speed solid state storage”.

Coleman explained the plan is to “effectively 'rent' satellite server resources on a per-minute, per-orbit basis.”

“For example, when a particular satellite is over the US, Customer A has use of the satellite using its VMs, and when it’s over Europe, Customer A’s VM is paused/snapshotted while Customer B’s VM is enabled and starts processing. This can all be done within seconds, or as fast as a revert to snapshot today in Xen, without the need to build, own or launch a satellite.”

Vector hopes to operate a fleet of satellites and allow live VM migration between them to create virtual satellites comprising several physical satellites. Here’s how Coleman explains that scenario:

VMs will move horizontally from one satellite to another, based on time, orbit and events (like the failure or reboot of a satellite) maintaining monitoring of a particular object or location on Earth through orbits. Passing from one satellite to the next as it moves past its region of interest, information and analytics, creating the effect of a stationary 'pseudo geo-synchronous satellite' with low-cost low Earth orbit micro-sats.

At this point, space-savvy Reg readers are probably saying, “But small low-Earth orbit satellites don’t last long.” You’re right to worry, but Vector thinks its sats should last between two and five years. Or as Coleman puts it, “Think standard PC/Server refresh rates for an enterprise customer.” And because the Vector-R has a base launch price of just US$1.5m, Coleman says “the cost of the satellites is low enough that we can take advantage of Moore’s Law and replenish the GalacticSky satellite constellations as the satellites de-orbit.”

Customers can then just upload their VMs onto new satellites.

Vector has cooked up its own CentOS-based “GalacticOS”, which it says is nicely lightweight and otherwise optimised to use on its satellites. But if you want to use another OS Vector won’t object as it will use vanilla XenServer, which has no trouble running guest OSes of many flavours. Coleman says Vector will also provide “helper VMs ... routing or networking VMs like NetScaler from Citrix optimised for space”.

Vector’s satellites will be optimised for imaging and communication applications. Imaging satellites will benefit from on-board VMs that can do things like pre-analysing captured images so users need download only the snaps they think will be useful.

Coleman thinks the sats could even become a “switching fabric for space by performing the functions we take for granted here on Earth, like space-based network routing, caching, QoS, firewalling, load balancing and others.”

Vector thinks that it has a shot at becoming the equivalent of a public cloud, but for and in space. Coleman says that investors are currently leery of space startups because of the colossal costs and risks of building one’s own satellites. But if developers can send a VM into space and try it on some customers, they’ll get the kind of springboard that public clouds offer terrestrial startups.

That’s some nicely blue-sky thinking, but not the work of space cadets. Vector has conducted successful engine tests and a sub-orbital launch. It plans to fly a Vector-R “as early as this summer,” has a customer for 21 launches, and thinks it can start regular commercial launches in 2018.

So brush up those CVs, XenServer admins. Your career could be about to blast off! ®


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