Microsoft inks satellite deal to push edge computing, software in orbit

Pop quiz: you've got your own edge computer in space. What do you do with it?

Microsoft is making a deal with satellite infrastructure outfit Loft Orbital to integrate some of the Windows-maker's cloud technology.

The theory goes that customers can develop, test and validate space systems in Azure prior to deploying them to satellites on orbit via Loft Orbital's platform. Azure has included Ground Station as a Service (GSaaS) since 2020, in preview form at least, and Microsoft has ambitions for edge technology beyond the outlying terrestrial office.

Microsoft is far from the only player in the market. Rival cloud vendor, AWS, also works in the aerospace and satellite arena and has its own AWS Ground Station infrastructure for controlling satellites and ingesting data as part of a GSaaS.

While Amazon might be a little busy dealing with pressing matters concerning Project Kuiper, Microsoft has inked a deal with Loft Orbital to launch a jointly used satellite in 2023.

Loft Orbital is all about the rapid deployment of payloads using a standard satellite bus. To that end, it contracted with Airbus for 15 satellite platforms derived from the Airbus ARROW platform earlier this year.

ARROW [PDF] is based on the production-line friendly OneWeb satellite bus; a lightweight design that can be stamped out quickly in the way that the company's more exotic efforts (such as heftier ESA probes) cannot. Mass production lines in Europe and the US mean as many as 15 of the satellites, capable of hosting up to a 100kg payload, can be manufactured each week.

In January, data processing and analytics company Earth Daily revealed it had a contract with Loft Orbital for 10 of the ARROW satellite buses (including one on-orbit spare) to fly a payload to provide coverage of the Earth's landmasses. Agricultural and environmental purposes were touted at the start of the year, but recent Earth observation activities over regions of conflict have demonstrated the usefulness of satellites able to keep an eye on the ground below.

Loft Orbital tell El Reg: 'We're ground station and ground infrastructure agnostic'

The Register spoke to co-founder of Loft Orbital Alex Greenberg shortly after the Airbus deal. Greenberg explained that the company did not own its own ground segment and instead was working with partners including Microsoft. "We're ground station and ground infrastructure agnostic," he told us, highlighting the company's own Cockpit product used to operate spacecraft.

Other outfits are also contracted, such as PagerDuty to ping out alerts automatically should things need attention.

There are periods of time when Loft Orbital's satellites are not in contact with ground stations, making autonomous operation all the more important.

In what seems like a canny move in retrospect, Loft Orbital also contracted with Elon Musk's rocketeers to fly its satellites on SpaceX transporter missions (OneWeb's were memorably supposed to launch on Soyuz vehicles until events caused a rapid rethink). Its customers are usually happy with a Sun Synchronous Orbit, although Greenberg told us the company was talking to small-sat launch providers for the occasions where a specific orbit was needed.

Greenberg also explained that, other than tweaks made to the ARROW design to get greater longevity, the satellite bus itself does not change mission to mission.

"Lifetime is longer than seven to eight years," he told us. "It's closer to 10 years… it really depends on what altitude we're in."

The payload, however, does change. Some are physical pieces of hardware flown for a specific customer. "But other times," he explained, "there are customers who can timeshare the use of that payload."

Greenberg told us about a recently announced payload for the US Space Force consisting of what was essentially an edge computer capable of processing and analysing data onboard the satellite rather than waiting for a ground station to come into view. "And that," he said, "is really, really interesting for customers that have real time needs."

Although Loft Orbit is cloud agnostic, Azure will be the cloud of choice for the mission with Microsoft in 2023. The Windows giant boasted of the capability "to deploy software in space, enabling new paradigms in remote sensing, edge compute, on-orbit autonomy, and other areas."

And that OneWeb-derived jointly used satellite? Microsoft said it "will provide a host environment for third-party software applications, enabling users to deploy and operate their applications in orbit."

We look forward to the inevitable Blue Screen of Death shining down from the heavens. ®

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