How space exploration is now being fueled by business innovation

Technologies shaping the enterprise world, like cloud, IoT and blockchain, are proving just as important in outer space

By | 4 minute read | October 27, 2020

Technology and space exploration have always gone hand in hand. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Camera phones. Wireless headsets. Scratch-resistant lens. CAT scans. The portable computer. They’re just a few of the enduring technologies the space program helped create, and which made their way into improving everyday life on earth.

Now the business world is returning the favor.

Innovations in the terrestrial corporate world—both in products and practices—are spurring the exploration of our solar system and beyond.

In recent years, technologies like edge computing, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, Internet of Things (IoT), digital twins and blockchain have transformed the business world with new efficiency and insight. Soon they will have a similar effect on how we expand our knowledge of outer space, reducing costs while gathering and processing critical information with expanding speed and scale.

“A new space age is dawning, and the business world is helping drive it,” Naeem Altaf, the CTO for space industry tech at IBM, told Industrious. “One great thing about technology is that an innovation focused on one area or problem can sometimes impact another in wonderful ways.”

In addition to business process innovation, technological advances by the private commercial sector are modernizing traditional and costly space practices by reusing rockets and building more efficient spacecraft, reducing per-launch costs. The global space industry is expected to generate revenue of $1.1 trillion or more in 2040, up from the current $350 billion, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley.

“This entrepreneurial space age will change the course of human history,” Altaf said.

Simulating space with digital twins

Mars exploration, like this year’s Perseverance mission, will greatly benefit from Earth-bound innovations like cloud, edge and quantum. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Arguably no innovation is having as cosmic an impact on space exploration as cloud and edge—so much so that Industrious is devoting an entire post to it later this week. Check back Thursday to learn how the ability to perform expansive, high-speed processing remotely will push the bounds of what’s possible in our solar system and beyond. (Update: Read all about it here.)

That’s just the beginning. Several other business tools are also making a significant impact. Digital twins, for instance, are having a big impact on both experimenting with new ideas and reducing costs. The twin concept uses a digital representation of a physical thing or system to stress test and reimagine various scenarios, with applications as diverse as quality management, security and product design.

Digital twins are a key tool used in the servicing, assembly and manufacturing of both satellites and spacecraft. They improve the entire processes; digital twins can take data from IoT-embedded in-flight assets and then map that to new models and simulations, with AI helping analyze and iterate throughout the process.

The European Union is also creating an ambitious digital twin of Earth that maps and analyzes massive amounts of geospatial data gleaned from satellites to simulate changes in the atmosphere. The EU model is expected to use machine learning techniques to provide more accurate predictions of climate change.

“The world is a dynamic place–deeply connected, constantly evolving and always presenting humanity with new challenges,” Jim Whitehurst, IBM’s president, said in a post on IBM’s THINK blog. “Answers to global problems are grounded in two powerful forces: innovation and human ingenuity.”

Quantum, and blockchain, mechanics

Cloud, edge computing and blockchain are enhancing missions to the International Space Station and beyond. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Blockchain, with its shared, replicated, decentralized ledger system, also has an expanded role in space exploration optimization. Just as it eases cross-border commerce on Earth, blockchain could simplify or speed development efforts, offering “major potential to reduce costs, accelerate processes and transactions, provides provenance and transparency and ultimately shortens the time to market,” Altaf said.

One place where blockchain can be useful is in optimizing resupply journeys to the International Space Station, also known as the ISS. This part of the aerospace industry is rapidly growing, particularly with the most recent innovations in launch facilities and payload vehicles from both the public and private sectors.

One of the main concerns is ensuring that ISS resupply components align with regulatory requirements. Blockchain provides near real-time information that can improve the scheduling and auditing of each payload. Blockchain may even play a role in the management of space junk, creating a centralized and verifiable database of tens of thousands of pieces of manmade detritus circling the planet.

Terrestrial business innovations will continue to drive space exploration for years to come. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Looking further out, quantum computing will  solve complex-as-the-cosmos problems not only on Earth.

In July, as part of its Mars 2020 effort, NASA launched the car-size Perseverance rover, which will search for ancient microbial life on the red planet. The rover has a drill to collect core samples of Martian rock and soil, then store them in sealed tubes for pickup by a future mission that would ferry them back to Earth for detailed analysis. In 2026 these samples will be retrieved for a trip back to earth. Quantum computing in future can play a critical role in such decision optimization scenarios.

Carl Sagan, the popular astronomer, once noted, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

The symbiotic relationship between business, space exploration and the business of space could reveal these incredible things even sooner.

“The future of space exploration is unlimited,” Altaf said. “Now we hope to use our best technology from here on earth to push it even further forward.”