Inseparable Partners – Technology and Outer Space

Last week, on 8 April 2024, the people of USA, Canada and Mexico turned their gaze to the skies to view the rare sight of a total solar eclipse. This event happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, completely blocking the face of the Sun, darkening the sky and creating (what is for most) a ‘once in a lifetime’ visual spectacle.

Humankind’s fascination with the cosmos stretches back millennia, but it is through technology that we have been able to move from simply stargazing, to landing boots on the Moon. In addition to the practical applications of technology to facilitate space travel and exploration, the relationship between space and technology has sparked the imaginations of many an author and screenwriter. Sci-fi in literature, film and other entertainment media has explored the relationship between the stars, humans, and technology in both positive and cautionary lights. Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ arguably most famously charts that journey, culminating in the astronauts aboard ‘Discovery One’ needing to overcome the infamous rogue-AI onboard ship computer, HAL.

While real-life human ventures into space have been more restrained in recent years – it’s been over 50 years since we last walked on the Moon – innovation in technology that facilitates space exploration and analysis has not slowed. More recent developments in cloud computing, edge computing, and AI have opened up new opportunities within the area of space innovation.

Having experienced the excitement of last weeks’ total solar eclipse, we at The Cloud Awards thought we’d take a look at how Cloud, SaaS and AI technologies are supporting human activity in space.

Data Processing and Analysis Power

Cloud computing and AI are revolutionizing data processing and analysis in space missions. With the immense volume of data collected from satellites, rovers, and telescopes, space agencies rely on cloud infrastructure to manage, store, and analyze this data efficiently.

AI algorithms play a crucial role in identifying patterns, anomalies, and trends within these datasets, aiding in scientific discoveries, mission planning, and spacecraft operations. For instance, NASA utilizes cloud platforms like AWS and Google Cloud to process data from the Hubble Space Telescope, enabling astronomers worldwide to access and analyze celestial images effectively. AI algorithms can also assist in classifying celestial objects, detecting exoplanets, and studying cosmic phenomena, enhancing our overall understanding of the universe.

We could be only be months away from data centers being deployed in space to improve data transmission speed and processing power capacity. Holding data centers in space also avoids complications that can arise from bad weather or natural disasters, reducing the likelihood of downtime or network outages. The strain of increased power requirements and computational resources would also be taken off-world, positively impacting the environment.

Remote Sensing and Earth Observation

SaaS technologies enable real-time monitoring of Earth’s surface and atmosphere using data acquired from satellites. Cloud-based platforms provide tools for processing, interpreting, and visualizing this data, facilitating applications such as weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, agriculture management, and disaster response. For example, companies like Planet Labs deploy fleets of small satellites to capture high-resolution images of Earth’s surface, which are processed and analyzed using cloud-based algorithms.

AI enables automated detection of changes and anomalies, supporting tasks like crop monitoring, urban planning, and natural resource management. These technologies contribute to sustainable development, climate resilience, and disaster preparedness on a global scale.

In 2022, Amazon Web Services announced its completion of a 10-month experiment to deploy ML software on an orbiting satellite. The experiment applied ML models on satellite sensor data to identify certain objects, such as wildfire smoke, buildings, and even ships. The result was the ability to more-quickly analyze data directly on the satellite. This potentially enables quicker analysis and action on events happening on Earth, and also on planetary defense through the monitoring of celestial objects and their possible trajectories.

Supporting Mission Control and Spacecraft Operations

Cloud computing supports mission control activities by providing scalable and secure infrastructure for telemetry, tracking, and command operations. SaaS applications streamline mission planning, scheduling, and resource allocation, ensuring efficient utilization of spacecraft and ground-based assets. For instance, SpaceX relies on cloud-based software for managing launch operations, tracking spacecraft trajectories, and coordinating satellite deployments.

On-board AI may also be used to more quickly identify and remedy spacecraft performance – something that in the future would be particularly important in supporting longer-range missions or travel.

AI-powered predictive analytics help identify potential issues before they escalate, enabling proactive decision-making and risk mitigation strategies, such as in space traffic management (monitoring and management of satellites and space debris).

Additionally, cloud-based simulations and virtual environments, such as those offered by Varjo, enable training astronauts and mission control personnel for various scenarios, enhancing mission readiness and safety.

Space Exploration and Navigation

Cloud-based navigation systems powered by AI algorithms enable precise positioning, navigation, and timing for spacecraft exploring the solar system. These systems utilize data from GPS satellites, celestial bodies, and onboard sensors to autonomously calculate trajectories, avoid hazards, and optimize fuel consumption. For example, NASA’s Mars rovers rely on cloud-based navigation software to traverse the Martian terrain, avoiding obstacles and selecting optimal routes for scientific exploration.

AI algorithms adapt to changing environmental conditions, enabling spacecraft to navigate autonomously in remote regions of space where communication delays occur. Furthermore, cloud-based simulations and AI-driven modeling facilitate mission planning for future space exploration endeavors, including crewed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Spacecraft Autonomy and Robotics

AI-driven autonomy plays a crucial role in enabling robotic spacecraft to perform complex tasks with minimal human intervention. Cloud-based platforms support the development and deployment of AI algorithms for autonomous navigation, manipulation, and decision-making onboard spacecraft and rovers. For example, the Perseverance rover on Mars utilizes AI algorithms to analyze terrain features, identify potential samples for collection, and navigate challenging landscapes. Cloud computing enables real-time communication between the rover and mission control on Earth, facilitating remote operation and data transmission.

Additionally, AI-powered robotics advance technologies such as autonomous docking, assembly, and maintenance of spacecraft and space stations. These capabilities pave the way for future exploration missions, space habitats, and infrastructure development in Earth orbit and beyond.

‘Space-as-a-Service’

The relationship between cloud computing and space will continue to develop over the coming years. SaaS platform business models offer an opportunity for space agencies and commercial organizations alike to invest more effectively in operational and functional improvements without significant up-front cost. Indeed, ‘Space-as-a-Service’ is a category that has emerged in the last couple of years as part of the Vertical SaaS movement, covering provision of services instead of purchases when it comes to things such as satellites, ground stations, or supporting services around data processing and delivery.

Innovation in AI and investment in SaaS platforms is enabling opportunity for both the increased understanding of our wider universe, but also monitoring and management of our own planet. The possibility of having a knock-on impact of improvement of the environment through the transition of processing power and energy consumption and its affects away from Earth seems particularly appealing.

Do you have a space age SaaS product that could be award-worthy?

The SaaS Awards is the largest and most prominent awards platform of its kind, recognizing outstanding achievements and innovation in Software-as-a-Service.

Organizations of any size, from anywhere on the planet, are able to enter for a chance to have their product or service recognized and celebrated in front of a global audience.

56 categories are open for entries, covering several business areas:

  • General categories rewarding overall excellence in SaaS
  • Industry-specific categories recognizing innovation across several sectors – such as Healthcare, HR, eCommerce/Retail, Financial Services, and Non-profits.
  • Operational categories applauding developments in AI, increased productivity, or data security.

Keep an eye on the header of our website for the latest entry deadline dates.

About the Author: Matthew Gregory

Matthew is Sales & Marketing Manager at The Cloud Awards and a former awards judge. He has over 13 years experience in the SaaS & Cloud services industry, with a specialism in retail & eCommerce.