Software-defined satellite” – an emerging technology in the space industry
The term “software-defined satellite” has already appeared in the space industry and related media,
but for the purpose of clarity of this article,
defined as follows:
instead of viewing a satellite as a 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 as
“software-defined radio” transceivers that can be reconfigured for a variety of RF tasks
“software-defined networking” appliances that can support a 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 a 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 the space industry.
But with the “software-defined” approach,
deployment of software code to an existing satellite can be done over a single day
And operations can begin immediately afterward.
The space industry is one of the most capital-intensive areas of the global economy.
The growth of the CubeSat segment and the growing availability of satellite data lowered the barriers of entry for small companies and solo entrepreneurs,
but in-space activities remain 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 the “pay-per-use” billing model to the users,
a lot more people would be able to afford direct participation in the 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
therefore allow a lot more business concepts to be implemented and tested in the environment of a real space mission.
Another important advantage of making satellite mission software-defined is removing dependency on the specific hardware.
This allows the 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 the 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.
The biggest advantage of utilizing a “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 the World Wide Web or modern smartphones.
Once all the infrastructure to provide low-cost and low-friction software deployment on a space-based platform will be in place,
the new breakthroughs will surely follow.
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