Microsoft’s move to space shouldn’t be surprising; it has long been interested in providing connectivity to the whole world and has had a range of different products and services that cater to that need. Azure Space brings them all in one organizationthat supports everything from satellite operations, ground stations and data centers, and even computer systems running on the International Space Station.
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Space, as Douglas Adams wrote, is great. That means there are quite a few a great business opportunity with the current boom in space technologies thanks to low-cost launches and the increasing use of commercial turnkey hardware and software in smallsats. Microsoft isn’t alone in using its public cloud as a way to deliver space projects, and Amazon also offers satellite services.
In the past, Microsoft’s aerospace efforts were relatively small consulting exercises, partnering with third parties and hardware vendors to deliver something very specific, whether it was a piece of custom code or adapting existing software for use in space-ready hardware. That side of the space industry isn’t going away, but much of Azure Space’s focus is on delivering larger projects, either outsourcing key functionality to existing operators or providing computational capabilities that satellites view as part of the increasingly becoming lead.
With so many different services, there is no Azure Space customer. Some of the first collaborations were an extension of Azure’s ExpressRoute service that used satellite links to access Azure data centers from remote locations. Using these links to geostationary satellites, Azure services can be used, albeit with some delay, from sites such as fly-in, fly-out mines in Australia and Canada where fiber connections are not available.
Manage your missions
Other tools include software for planning and managing space missions. If you’re an operator planning to build a massive satellite constellation like the one used by OneWeb and SpaceX, you need software that can model the complexity of thousands of intersecting orbits, with satellite-to-ground and satellite-to- satellite communication links. Traditional satellite control systems were not designed to manage the scale of these new systems, so Microsoft has developed a tool, Azure Orbital Emulator, that allows operators to simulate these rapidly changing networks, to test satellite-based applications before loading them on its limited compute capacity. of small satellites.
A major use of Azure’s Orbital Emulator is the development and training of machine learning-based satellite operating systems. These can be trained in the emulator, using hyperscale cloud tools such as Azure’s machine learning platform, before being exported to run on satellite-hosted inference systems. Microsoft has built a series of pre-prepared environments for the system to allow different types of satellite operators to work with sample data, including providing sample images so that Earth Resources operators can test image processing applications on the satellite.
It is difficult to debug code running on a satellite, with latency, limited connection windows, and limited compute resources. Being able to use Azure Space for this can be a big savings as your code can be validated and tested before an expensive upload so you can get it right the first time.
However, connectivity remains a key driver for the service, building on the original Azure Orbital product† Microsoft describes it as “ground station as a service,” using partnerships with SpaceX Starlink and SES to connect the Azure cloud to its containerized mobile data center. With access from low-Earth and medium-Earth orbit, as well as to the well-known geostationary satellites, Microsoft is aiming for global coverage for satellite communications.
The Mobile Data Center aims to bring computers to remote locations, using a satellite uplink where connectivity is poor. Running applications in the mobile data center allows you to process and upload data without worrying about the latency of a satellite connection. Microsoft is working on its own Azure hosted software-defined radio platform based on Ubuntu, which allows you to build your own receiver software to work with satellite (and other ground-based) radio systems
With Azure Orbital, you can bring your own ground station or bring data from one of Microsoft’s, located in its own Azure data centers, and connect your existing infrastructure to satellite. This approach works well for all types of missions, not just communications. For example, if you’re working with your own smallsat Earth Resources spacecraft, you can use Azure Orbital to download images from your satellite before processing it into Azure. The intent is to make the satellite an extension of your Azure application, much like working with data from an Azure Stack hybrid cloud system where data is initially processed at the edge before being uploaded to Azure for further work.
Running Azure in space!
Azure Space gives Microsoft a way to deliver one-off projects for large commercial and government customers. An interesting example of this is a project for NASA, which partners with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to run Azure workloads on his second-generation Spaceborne Computer, built around HPE’s robust Edgeline systems. This uses out-of-the-box hardware with custom software to deliver powerful computers to the International Space Station. The SBC-2 project examines whether standard computer equipment can operate in space without significant radiation hardening, saving NASA money.
Microsoft to provide Azure workloads to the SBC-2 hardware, run machine learning and other pre-processing applications, before delivering data to Azure for further work. It’s not entirely clear how this will work, whether Microsoft provides a version of Azure Stack HCI or whether it uses containers to host edge workloads through tools like Azure Arc. However, it’s an interesting example of how Azure Space plans to partner with its satellite customers, delivering software in space and on the ground. Other Azure Space projects include Microsoft technologies such as HoloLens augmented reality and the FarmBeats precision farming platform.
While Azure Space may seem a bit disjointed right now, with a mix of services that may not be clearly connected at first glance, it’s clear there’s a vision here. Microsoft sees space as an extension of Azure, a more distant intelligent edge, to paraphrase Satya Nadella’s tagline.
With Azure Space, it provides two parts of that edge, connectivity to the cloud on the ground and a way to run Azure applications in space. At the same time, it gives Azure a way to work where traditional connectivity isn’t available, filling a major gap to scale compute where it’s most needed. What we see today is scaffolding, with Microsoft filling in the gaps to make space a seamless part of the modern cloud.