By Naeem Altaf, IBM Distinguished Engineer and Chief Technology Officer of Space Tech
On July 20, 1969, the world celebrated the first moonshot. The successful landing of Apollo 11 on the lunar surface was a landmark moment — one that expanded our imagination and shaped a future of possibility. As we reflect on that incredible achievement now, those of us working to help solve the space challenges of tomorrow are newly inspired to ask: What’s next?
I’d like to tell you about a few of the exciting areas of work underway that provide a glimpse of what may lie ahead. While Apollo 11 relied upon what were then cutting-edge mainframe computers, the next leaps forward will depend on new applications of artificial intelligence, innovative methods of harnessing data about space weather, and other technology breakthroughs as humans begin to spend not just months but years in space.
Edge computing in space
Why limit data centers to Earth? We’re in the early stages of exploring what it would look like to ring our planet with a constellation of satellites storing data in orbit — literally extending the cloud computing environments of today beyond the clouds and into space.
For example, the startup Cloud Constellation is aiming to launch a space-based cloud storage network around the world in 2021, comprised of satellites that beam data up and down as they float overhead. The idea is to provide data storage in space that is more secure because it is not physically connected to terrestrial infrastructure. Given the costs of a data breach — which can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars — many organizations may be willing to pay a premium for this kind of secure, next-generation data management.
Predicting space weather
The Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is a satellite that monitors variations in our sun’s atmosphere, magnetic field, radiation, solar wind, and more. These conditions make up what we call “space weather,” which can affect the functioning of satellites and spacecraft, as well as technologies and systems back on Earth. Powerful solar storms can disrupt communications, wreak havoc with GPS devices, and knock electrical grids offline.
Recently, one of the three instruments the SDO uses broke. However, a team of Earth-bound scientists was able to fix it without even leaving their desks. Using AI and powerful servers to accelerate neural net training, experts realized that with data from the satellite’s other two sensors, they could work out what the missing information from the third would be.
It may be possible to squeeze more out of data collected from past space missions. Frontier Development Lab, a public-private partnership involving IBM and others and hosted by SETI Institute, has a project underway to glean new insights from data that has already been gathered, allowing for more detailed forecasts of space weather, as well as to enhance the predictability of the Global Navigation Satellite System.
Blockchain for space logistics
The supply chain of any space program is vastly complex — contracts must be signed, orders tracked, parts assembled, and shipped, designs laid out, tests, and audits passed. And that doesn’t even include actually launching anything into space. Blockchain technology can help manage all of that complexity.
As a first step, IBM built a prototype solution using open source Hyperledger software that is designed to enable satellite service customers, manufacturers, launch service providers, mission control centers, and satellite operators to share information on test data, quality control, trouble management, and flight data. All of the relevant activity is tracked in an immutable database where access can be limited to authorized participants.
Power of partnership
The possibilities are endless, but we will only become a multi-planetary species as a result of massive cooperation. Important work is being done through the Frontier Development Lab. Looking ahead, it will be important to create a knowledge base that captures the operational experiences that can be gleaned from previous space launches. Using technologies such as a virtual advisor like Watson Assistant, decades of skills and insights can be applied to help enhance the space technology industry’s expertise.
The industry will heavily draw on the lessons of the Apollo program — not just the science, but also the commitment and the courage of everyone involved. Fifty years ago, 4,000 IBM employees worked with NASA to land on the moon. Over the next 50 years, we are committed to helping to provide the technology and know-how to reach the next horizon.
Learn more about IBM and space at ibm.com/apollo50th.
This post is sponsor content from IBM and was created by IBM and Insider Studios.
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