Why cloud and edge are launching the next space race

New ways of transmitting and computing data are having just as big an impact beyond Earth as on it

By | 4 minute read | October 29, 2020

Event horizon: Cloud computing and edge technology are bringing new possibilities to space exploration. (Photo courtesy NASA)

The vast dark reaches of outer space may have stirred the souls of poets and philosophers for millennia—but they can be a nightmare if you’re trying to set up  a reliable communications system.

Even traveling at the speed of light, it can take up to 24 minutes for a radio wave to reach Earth from Mars. Two-way communication—message and answer—might require an hour.

That’s why cloud and edge computing, innovations that shorten communications delays and which have been remaking the business world, will be just as important for the continued exploration and capitalization of space.

“If we can speed up communication with our far-flung space explorers, it will accelerate how much we can learn and discover,” said Naeem Altaf, an IBM distinguished engineer and CTO of its Space Tech team.

The rise of cloud and edge to the exosphere is part of a larger trend Industrious explored earlier this week. For decades, the discoveries of the space program have helped propel business innovation around the globe; yet now, rocket scientists and astronauts are just as likely to turn to the business world for the latest and greatest tools to push the boundaries of their work.

Many space efforts now use edge computing, a technique that allows sensor data to be processed by computers in the same place where it was collected, rather than having to travel back to a central server for cataloging and analysis. Edge computing has already made a big mark in the enterprise—Gartner reported that by 2022, half of all data will be created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or a cloud network.

Orbiting on the edge

A satellite deployed from the International Space Station—both of which benefit from edge technology. (Photo courtesy NASA)

For space-based systems, edge computing can save both time and energy. Energy is an even more precious resource in space than on Earth, so cutting down on transmissions, whether to relay information or run equations, can be hugely important.

“Using edge, critical data can be analyzed in hours instead of days,” Altaf said.

For example, sensor-equipped swarms of nanosatellites, such as ChipSats and CubeSats, can use edge systems to process the data they collect in low-Earth orbit without activating the satellite’s power-hungry radio. These satellite swarms, which fly about 250 to 370 miles above the Earth’s surface, can be clustered and organized to support important missions in the study of weather, climate science, national security and disaster response.

Edge computing has a great potential on the International Space Station, the in-flight science laboratory designed to help us better understand what it’s like living and working in space. The gathering and analysis of information from its many sensors  can run on the ISS, instead of sending the info back to Earth, to expedite data analysis for researchers.

Edge and cloud computing techniques continually enhance communications between Earth and the cosmos. (Photo courtesy NASA)

It’s the same reason edge devices are increasingly important and popular on earthly enterprises. If a driverless car, for example, had to wait for its complex analysis of traffic and spatial information to be processed in the cloud or on a server, it could lead to an accident. And those server transmissions take milliseconds to relay, not minutes, hours or days, as in space.

“Both the science and business of space represent an extreme example of why edge computing is so important—enabling operational resilience, real-time decision making and minimizing the cost of transmitting data,” said Rob High, an IBM fellow and CTO of IBM Edge Computing. “Edge computing makes space exploration possible, but, more importantly, edge computing unlocks the very potential value of space.”

Cloud beyond the clouds

Thank to cloud and edge, a new day is dawning for the business of space. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Cloud computing also plays a critical role in trimming communications delays. In space, as on Earth, a cloud-based ecosystem can help quickly access and use data over shared servers, often using an open-source software framework. Many data sets and AI, like weather, geospatial, or defense programs, could never fit on a single server or device and must be accessed through the cloud. It also offers great advantages in extending the reach of networks as well as providing a new level of cybersecurity.

Cloud technology is crucial for space exploration where we are sending humans and machines further and further away from Earth, places where rapid data retrieval times are critical. Having Cloud “data centers” in lower Earth orbit, will provide infrastructure and application services, catering to the needs of objects in orbits.

Experts say that the combination of computation in orbit, rapid and secure data transfer, essential to business as well as space exploration, will drive an increasingly beneficial relationship in the years ahead.

“We are learning ,” Altaf said. “We are redefining what is possible.”