Cloud computing is already making a big impact in the life sciences and may soon transform the extraterrestrial branches of scientific inquiry. Recently, Microsoft announced a partnership with SpaceX and the Starlink broadband satellite constellation to launch a space cloud platform.
With this partnership, the Azure cloud system will be available in virtually any scenario with the use of worldwide satellite connectivity. These means that users can simply achieve more, even if they are based in outer space. However, the partnership also facilitates the use of cloud technology from virtually anywhere on earth by bringing in such a power system of satellites.
Along with the new SpaceX partnership, Microsoft unveiled its Azure Modular Datacenter, a mobile data hub with its own container and networking equipment. This system can connect to the cloud using wireless networks, terrestrial fiber, or satellite links. In other words, the device can be used in complete disconnection from the rest of the world.
The new datacenter builds on Azure Orbital, which is currently being rolled out by Microsoft. Azure Orbital is a platform to processing satellite data and connecting to ground-station communications services. While Azure Orbital is currently only available in private preview, it is expected to become part of the larger Azure Space offering.
A Rivalry for Control of Space-Based Cloud Computing
These new developments establish Microsoft as the leader in space-based cloud computing, although Amazon Web Services is also working diligently to secure part of this market. The latter company recently introduced its Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business unit, although the advancements have not been as robust as at Microsoft.
A multibillion rivalry already exists between the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Bezos founded the Blue Origin space venture, which is the primary competitor for SpaceX. Now, it seems like this rivalry will spill over into the field of space-based cloud computing.
Starlink satellites are a significant win for Microsoft in this rivalry. Manufactured by SpaceX, these satellites are designed to provide better broadband connectivity to billions of people who have questionable access. In the past 18 months, more than 800 of these satellites have been launched into low earth orbit, which has created an extremely valuable and reliable network.
Already, SpaceX has made Starlink available for some key applications, such as emergency services and American military exercises. Also, the Hoh Tribe on the Olympic peninsula of Washington are using the satellites for advanced connectivity. A commercial service for these satellites is expected in the early months of 2021.
New Partnerships Drive Innovation in Satellite Connectivity
Combining Azure with Starlink will provide incredibly robust capabilities for customers of both companies. These capabilities will be enhanced by plans to connect Starlink with the Microsoft global network, which includes the Azure edge devices. Also, the existing SpaceX ground stations will integrate with Azure’s networking capabilities.
The new partnership is also already paying off in other ways. SpaceX recently signed a $149-million contract with the Pentagon Space Development Agency to construct four satellites with military applications as part of the first stage of a much largest military satellite projects. Microsoft has been brought on as a subcontractor under SpaceX for the project. Also, Microsoft already has a $10-billion contract with the Pentagon for cloud computing services.
The new partnership also connects SpaceX to the other partners with Azure Space that have already been announced. Azure Orbital includes key relationships with Amergint Technology, KubOS, Kratos, Viasat, and US Electrodynamics.
Another partner is SES, one of the largest satellite operators in existence. SES has already shown that its satellite network can connect to the Microsoft modular datacenters should a fiber outage occur, which increases the reliability of the cloud network.
Some of these modular datacenters are already reported to be in sue by defense and private-sector organizations. These centers are designed to function as emergency relief stations, mineral exploration sites, and mobile military command centers to provide safe and secure computing in any type of conditions.
The Present and Future of Satellite-Based Cloud Technology
These data centers look like simple shipping containers from the outside and can be transported easily because of this design. However, inside, they contain racks of computer servers with intricate cooling systems and networking equipment that make it a self-contained operation. The centers can run fully or partially connected, or even in a disconnected mode.
Each of the centers autonomously monitors network performance and automatically chooses connections based on availability and stability so that network disruptions are virtually nonexistent. This sort of technology represents the peak of cloud reliability and connectivity.
Microsoft has also created an Azure Orbital Emulator, which developers can use to simulate the behavior of a satellite constellation like Starlink. These can help train artificial intelligence systems and other networks prior to any launch. Azure Government customers are already using this emulator.
Overall, the market for satellite data services is likely to increase significantly in coming months. OneWeb, a broadband satellite venture, will be emerging from bankruptcy, and the British government is expected to make large investments. Amazon is also preparing for Project Kuiper, a broadband satellite constellation meant to compete with Starlink.