Edge Computing in space: faster actions without ground interference

Satellite in orbit over Earth
Cristina De Luca -

May 24, 2021

How to assess the state of health of a sick astronaut? How do you know if atmospheric and surface conditions on a planet present any danger to a crew on the verge of exploring the place? How to find the ideal spot on the lunar surface to fuel a small rover carrying supplies? Or how to test the equipment and spacesuits of astronauts who need to leave a space station to carry out repairs to the outer structure? Space presents big challenges, and they require critical decisions to be made quickly. In seconds, not minutes or hours.

Bottlenecks like this hinder any quick decisions that have to be made after processing the received information, which already arrives late on Earth. So concentrating more computing power at the opposite end of the Earth can solve many of the challenges faced by researchers, scientists, astronauts and the like when working in orbit around our planet. But other problems add up to transmission distance, such as limited physical space, the power required to make things work, and equipment cooling mechanisms.

The name given to the technology that allows local processing of data collected at the edge is Edge Computing, which speeds up decision making and the configuration of specific actions in the shortest possible time. Applied from agriculture to autonomous cars, the technology has evolved to bring more and more computing power to the edge, freeing up communication paths with cloud processing centres. And the applications become even more interesting in space missions – where communication channels are long with high latency, and large local computing power would depend on vast power supplies.

The big challenge of Edge Computing is to balance local computing power, in a small physical space, consuming little power and minimal bandwidth for communication with command centers. And yet achieve the feat of processing vast amounts of data locally to create an optimized decision-making solution that can positively affect your business or your mission. This also increases the challenge of monitoring this infrastructure. Monitoring is vital to protect critical assets, ensure network performance, identify systemic anomalies and identify internal/external cyber threats.

According to MarketsandMarkets, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the global Edge Computing market, which is expected to grow from $3.6 billion in 2020 to $15.7 billion by 2025. The need for more focused technologies at the edge where data is collected has increased and will continue to grow, due to several factors: the evolution of autonomous cars, the space race, the increase in the number of employees working remotely are just a few examples. All of them overload communication network bandwidths, increasing processing latency and demanding more computing power and local storage.

The launching of more and more satellites, rockets and the expansion of space stations such as the ISS (International Space Station) has demanded an enormous advance in energy capture and storage compositions, computing power in nanometric circuits, protocols and means of communication and storage.

The aim of taking Edge Computing into space is to speed up the results of experiments conducted on space stations so that decisions can be made more quickly to change the direction of research, making technology a key factor for future space missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. It can also be used to improve calculations of trajectories and routes of other spacecraft, satellites, among other basic needs for displacement and daily life in space.

Chart showing constellations launched and being planned, with their respective numbers of nanosatellites

Constellations launched and in planning – https://www.nanosats.eu

Even with improvements in ground station capabilities, the nanosatellites themselves have limits on their communication links, making the task of taking “orders” from down here very laborious and inefficient. So giving that control power to the satellites or space stations themselves is the only effective way to organise hundreds of nanosatellites on special missions. And getting them to act collaboratively can dramatically decrease the amount of data each needs to collect and transmit, making a network of receiving ground stations more easily able to handle the growing number of constellations with planned launches in the coming years.