by Dennis Silin
The term “software-defined satellite” has already appeared in the space industry and related media, but for the purpose of clarity of this article it will be defined as following: instead of viewing a satellite as monolithic piece of hardware and software, designed to perform a specific mission, one can see the same satellite as a platform capable of running multiple different missions (defined as software applications) on the same hardware platform. This definition follows the same approach as other “software-defined” entities, such “software-defined radio” transceivers that can be reconfigured for a variety of RF tasks or “software-defined networking” appliances that can support wide range of telecommunications applications. In this similar manner, implementing satellite missions in software can offer a number of advantages, described in detail further below.
- The primary advantage of using “software-defined” solutions is the opportunity to reuse one satellite for multiple applications for multiple users. While the nature of applications is defined by the instruments available for the users, the common Earth observation and communications ones, such as imaging cameras and spectrometers already allow the wide range of different usage scenarios.
- Currently, any party that is interested in deploying any kind of satellite in space, they have to go to the multi-step process of designing the satellite itself, finding launch or mission provider, building or buying the necessary hardware, obtaining the regulatory permits and telecom licenses and so on. Multi-year and multi-decade projects are common in space industry. But with “software-defined” approach, deployment of software code to an existing satellite can be done over a single day and operations can begin immediately afterwards.
- Low cost. Space industry is one of the most capital-intensive area of the global economy. The growth of cubesat segment and growing availability of satellite data lowered the barriers of entry for small companies and solo entrepreneurs, but in-space activities remains outside the reach of an average software developer. Using the model where multiple satellite missions can share access to resources of the single satellite and applying “pay-per-use” billing model to the users, a lot more people would be able to afford direct participation in upstream space segment.
- In a similar manner, access to space technologies is often behind the industry or government barriers, often requiring security clearance or being a citizen of select few countries with well-established space agency and aerospace industry. By comparison, modern software development is a lot more open and accessible to the global community of programmers. By taking the same approach, satellite mission development and operations can become a lot more accessible and therefore allow a lot more business concepts to be implemented and tested in the environment of a real space mission.
- Platform-independence. Another important advantage of making satellite mission software-defined is removing dependency on the specific hardware. This allows creation of platform-independent, portable application packages that can be reused on multiple satellite platforms, provided there is enough compatibility between the models in the family. Such a development will mirror history of terrestrial computers, which evolved from unique pieces that could only run software designed for their own architecture to modern systems that support software that can run in native, platform-independent and virtualized environments.
- Future opportunities. The biggest advantage of utilizing “software-defined” approach to satellite development will be the hardest one to predict. The benefits of “software-defined satellites” can go far beyond the ability to reconfigure a single satellite for multiple customers and multiple missions. Opening up an entirely new domain for independent developers may create the same boom of new applications as the creation of World Wide Web or modern smartphones. Once all the infrastructure to provide low-cost and low-friction software deployment on space-based platform will be in place, the new breakthroughs will surely follow.
Both space agencies and space industry are now realizing the advantages of “software-defined satellite” technologies. European Space Agency has been developing the first mission of this kind since 2012, called OPS-SAT . This 3U cubesat has been successfully launched in December 2019 as a secondary payload on Soyuz rocket from Kourou spaceport. Called a “software laboratory in space”, its mode of operation is essentially as defined above, with multiple users being able to upload and run their own software applications on its onboard computer, sharing the satellite instruments and hardware resources.
Commercial space industry also have started to work on making their satellite more “software-defined”. Airbus Defense and Space is already developing a software-defined platform for their geostationary telecommunications satellites and plans to launch several of them in the next years . Lockheed Martin is another “Old Space” company that have started their own “software-defined satellite” program, called SmartSat . Their first mission was “Pony Express-1” payload experiment on a cubesat launched in January 2020.
Activities in this segment are not limited to the established giants of aerospace industry. A number of space start-ups in US and UK are also working to launch their “software-defined” solutions, one of them being the Exodus Orbitals – the British-Canadian company founded by the author of this opinion piece. Our company is relying on OPS-SAT mission to test some of building blocks of a “software-defined satellite” technology, with the goal of launching commercially available platform for space applications next year.
Dennis Silin is a Canadian entrepreneur and also a first generation immigrant, having come from Ukraine in 2004. He had a long and successful career as software developer after graduation from Ryerson University with BSc in Computer Science, but his true passion was always space exploration. His contributions in this area included participating in multiple NASA Space App hackathons and presenting his paper on interstellar travel at 2011 NASA/DARPA Hundred Year Starship conference. In 2016 he was finally able to pursue his dreams, having first completed MSc in Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University and then founding Exodus Orbitals company, where he is working full time as Executive Director.