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Pioneering a bold space future with AWS

By Clint Crosier, Director, AWS Aerospace and Satellite

Nothing awakens our collective imaginations quite like space. We are in an exciting new era of human discovery, with science and technology playing a central role in space missions. Now more than ever before, exciting advances in robotics, automation, and cloud technology are making it possible to explore the universe around us in powerful new ways.

Earlier this year, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the most complex and powerful space telescope ever built, began returning dazzling images of the first galaxies that were created billions of years ago. Meanwhile, robots are autonomously exploring the surface of Mars, and uncrewed spacecraft are helping scientists study the atmosphere of Venus and other distant planets. Many of these unprecedented journeys are cloud-powered with Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

And we’re just getting started. The global space industry is forecast to reach $1 trillion in annual revenue by 2040, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and others. As the rapid pace of innovation continues across the industry, both established space players and a critical mass of new businesses continue to turn to AWS for the speed, agility, and innovation required for complex space missions.

Just as cloud technology has enabled amazing advances related to health, medicine, transportation, and more here on Earth, we fully expect that future missions in space will require cloud based technology to thrive. AWS is committed to collaborating with space organizations to provide them the cloud tools they need for these missions, and ensuring access to secure, scalable, reliable cloud tools wherever they need it.

Pioneering the next frontier in space travel and exploration

The pioneers of the Space Age had grand visions of where space programs might take us. Now, the global space industry is set to achieve some of the boldest of these dreams. For example, industry teams are designing new space habitats, including Axiom Station and Orbital Reef, to replace the International Space Station (ISS) and support a new era of sustained research, on-orbit space servicing, space tourism, and commerce in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). 

These future space habitats are being designed to meet the needs of global space agencies and government organizations and will also welcome commercial business and visitors. Part of the design process under way now includes anticipating how these commercial visitors will want to live and work aboard these habitats. Consider for a moment that the mobile devices we carry hold 8 million times more memory than the lunar module that Apollo astronauts used to land on the Moon in 1969. It’s safe to expect this same level of earthly connectivity, convenience, and access to knowledge will become the standard in space, too. That’s why AWS and Amazon Supply Chain are working with the Orbital Reef team to reimagine everything from on-orbit communications, networking, transportation, and logistics for this future space ecosystem. 

It’s exciting that these stations will act as future waypoints for exploration of the Moon, Mars, and other planets. In the meantime, AWS is helping customers launch groundbreaking new un-crewed space missions to help us better understand our solar system by quickly processing, analyzing, and delivering satellite data and detailed imagery and information from distant planets. For example, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars in February 2021 after a seven-month, 300-million-mile journey. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) uses AWS to process data from Mars back on Earth, faster than ever before, so that teams can make decisions faster about the health and safety of the rover. This is the first planetary NASA mission with mission-critical communication and transfer of telemetry data in the cloud. 

As NASA’s Mars mission continues, another historic mission is about to begin on the Moon. A company called Lunar Outpost is using AWS digital engineering tools to develop a new rover that will autonomously navigate the Moon’s surface and help scientists explore the lunar south pole for the first time.  AWS digital engineering tools are integral for testing the robots in a variety of harsh operating conditions in preparation for the first rover’s upcoming launch.

Anticipating the needs of future space missions

Sensors on modern spacecraft capture more data than anyone in the Apollo era could have imagined. The growing number of spacecraft and capabilities of those spacecraft in orbit mean that more data is collected every day.  Commercial imagery companies collect over 100 terabytes of data every day – the equivalent of 20 million songs or 20,000 high-definition movies. Organizations like Ursa Space rely on AWS to help government customers, first responders, and other users quickly and easily find relevant information in its vast catalog of over 10 million synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite images within minutes.

Ultimately the true value of space data lies in turning information like satellite imagery and satellite sensor data into information that can be used to improve life here on Earth. For example, Satellite operators like Capella Space use AWS Ground Station to help stay connected with their orbiting satellites. The insights provided on-demand through Capella’s satellite constellation help decision makers respond rapidly to changing real world conditions and respond to natural disasters. 

To better support the bold new space-based missions of the future, we must address certain industry challenges now. Some of the most pressing challenges include latency, bandwidth-limited networks, and on-orbit connectivity. Every day, AWS and its global partner network are working hard to address these challenges with industry-leading cloud solutions.   

Consider the challenge of latency, or delay, involved with transmitting space data back to Earth. According to NASA, it takes approximately five to 20 minutes for a radio signal to travel the distance between Mars and Earth. Future space exploration missions will require more immediate communication as well as the ability to share information quickly, reliably, and seamlessly among supporting teams in multiple locations. AWS is working to reduce this time between tasking, collection, and analysis by helping partners and customers analyze information closer to where it is collected—on orbit. 

Earlier this year, Axiom Space and AWS worked together to successfully integrate and operate an AWS Snowcone SSD (solid state drive) on the ISS to help researchers more quickly and efficiently analyze data from onboard scientific experiments, without first sending all the data back to Earth. This experiment marked the first time that AWS remotely operated a general-purpose edge processing and storage device on the ISS. Analyzing the information in space is a huge benefit because it reduces downtime and increases productivity. To ensure continued success, future spaceflight missions will need to incorporate advanced cloud-based technology.

This new period of innovation and exploration are creating more opportunities than ever before for humanity to push the boundaries of what we know about our universe. The pioneering new space missions of tomorrow will reward us with vast amounts of new knowledge and insights. AWS is committed to ensuring the next generation of innovators, explorers, and scientists have the seamless, reliable tools they need to examine, understand, and share their discoveries.

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