Microsoft and Ball Aerospace enlist the cloud to speed up Space Force’s data flow

Telesat Phase 1 LEO satellite
An artist’s conception shows Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite in orbit. (Telesat Illustration)

How will Pentagon planners cope with the torrents of data that are expected to rain down from a constellation of satellites monitoring hotspots from low Earth orbit?

Microsoft and Ball Aerospace say they’ve demonstrated that the cloud can handle it — and not just handle it, but process multiple streams of satellite data five times faster than the Pentagon’s target speed.

The demonstration of a prototype system was conducted this year for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in support of the Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations Program Office, or CASINO, which is under the aegis of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

For the purposes of the test, Telesat provided access to its satellite network in low Earth orbit. Ball Aerospace provided the event-driven architecture for dealing with the data beamed down from space. And Microsoft Azure provided the cloud-computing firepower for processing the data and pulling out insights.

Telesat’s satellite sent down as many as 20 separate streams of simulated Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor readings, also known as OPIR. Such data streams could be crucial for detecting and countering missile threats — but processing the flood of data is no easy task.

“What this prototype did was prove out that low Earth orbit is a viable capability for the Space Force, working with the cloud. Against the program goals that the DIU set, the ground processing with space data is about five times faster with the Azure cloud,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Azure Global, told GeekWire.

“We think it’s a pretty big deal,” Keane said.

The team was able to transmit OPIR data via Telesat’s satellites to Azure in the datacenter as well as directly to a tactical vehicle equipped with an Azure Stack Edge device. “This brings the ability to have satellite connectivity on a vehicle, or even on something that’s moving, like a plane in flight,” Keane said.

Microsoft vehicle with ground station
The Microsoft-Ball data processing demonstration showed that satellite data could be downlinked and processed on a tactical vehicle. (Microsoft Photo)

Steve Smith, Ball Aerospace’s vice president and general manager for systems engineering solutions, said the system could open up new frontiers for satellite applications related to defense.

“We’ve been in the ground processing business for 30 years, and so this idea of not having to build a building, and not having to haul in a bunch of processors, and not having to haul in a bunch of storage, and having that be your ground system … the capability of getting away from that is exciting,” Smith said. “The cloud becomes your ground system.”

When it comes to Microsoft’s ability to deal with big data from satellites, CASINO isn’t the only game in town.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a program called Blackjack that aims to develop a broadband satellite constellation in low Earth orbit for defense applications. Microsoft is part of a team that’s working on the mission management system for Blackjack satellites, known as Pit Boss.

“I think it’s fair to say that we continue to work together with our partners to win more business, and to compete for business,” Keane said.

Keane added that the insights gained from the CASINO project could also feed into commercial ventures, including Microsoft Azure’s partnership with SpaceX and its Starlink satellite broadband network.

“The work that we’re doing here, the experimentation, the work together with customers absolutely has applicability to the partnerships that we have elsewhere in space, like the Starlink partnership,” he said. “In fact, we demonstrated from a moving airframe, using a Ball antenna, using the Starlink array to talk into Azure. So we’ve actually had the Azure cloud capabilities in use on an airframe in flight, together with Ball.”

Keane said the next steps will focus on innovative ways to transform satellite data into deep insights — on the battlefield, or in the office. “As we look at doing things with that data, with augmented intelligence, with predictive analytics … the possibilities there almost become endless,” he said.