Military Embedded Systems

GUEST BLOG: Bringing data processing to the extraterrestrial edge


February 13, 2024

Travis Steele

Red Hat

GUEST BLOG: Bringing data processing to the extraterrestrial edge

When it comes to data processing and analysis, space is a final frontier that’s filled with challenges. Fortunately, military leaders have access to the technology and tools to make interstellar data processing a success, resulting in faster actionable insights – and a strategic and tactical advantage.

Over the past few years, data processing has gotten further and further away from the traditional data center. Now, it’s going even farther still – to the reaches of outer space.

NASA, for example, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to streamline data processing in space by automatically identifying and prioritizing information about events that are happening on Earth. The Space Development Agency (SDA) has developed a prototype on-orbit experimental testbed (POET) to process data onboard satellites used by the U.S. military to detect and track targets on the ground, at sea, or in the air.

These early examples of data processing at the far edge exemplify technology’s ability to provide government organizations with a tactical and strategic advantage over potential adversaries. However, these technological advances also present significant operational and IT challenges that must be addressed today if R&D at the orbital edge is to be successful.

The potential of extraterrestrial data processing is being held back

The potential for data processing at the extraterrestrial edge is almost as vast as the universe in which it will take place. The possible use cases for the military are obvious. For example, a satellite can provide detailed images that can be immediately analyzed at the point of capture, with only some information needing to be processed on Earth, thereby providing actionable intelligence more quickly than the use of a traditional data center alone.

Beyond national security, data processing in space can also lead to discoveries that can impact medicine, climate, and more. These insights can lead to advancements that can ultimately help scientists and the world at large.

Data processing in space will help lead to these advancements, but right now it’s hampered by physical and compute limitations. From a physical standpoint, most information must still be transmitted back to Earth for processing at ground-based stations and data centers. This transaction takes time, thanks to the distance the data must travel and the fact that it is being transmitted over low-bandwidth and high-latency networks.

After it’s processed, information must then be sent back to the satellite or space station–again, again consuming precious time and resources.

We often hear that the success of military missions is in part dependent upon the ability to garner information in near-real time; in terms of space, that’s simply not happening fast enough. Until it is, the efficacy of using space-based resources for military use cases will be stunted.

There is a solution, however: The use of microservices, coupled with an underlying open source substrate, can extend Earth-based cloud infrastructures and services to the outer limits of space, providing military leaders and scientists with the processing capabilities they need to successfully create powerful interstellar data centers.

Size, weight, and computing power for extraterrestrial data processing

In addition to the time it takes for information to be relayed from orbit to the ground, the lack of onboard real estate limits the types of hardware that can be used to process and analyze data. This is a problem the military is very familiar with, having dealt with challenges of size, weight, and power (SWaP) when it comes to drones, edge devices, and so on. Space provides similar challenges, but with the addition of thermal demands.

Fortunately, many of the same technologies the military already uses for data processing at the edge can also be applied to space, including microservices. Since microservices architectures break up software applications into loosely coupled, smaller digital services, they can easily be deployed in all edge environments – even the extraterrestrial edge. The SWaP of the system they’re running on is less of an issue, as microservices use very little power and can run on small embedded devices.

Essentially, deploying microservices in orbit creates a constellation version of what has already been successfully deployed on Earth. Complex workloads and mission-critical systems can be run and optimized in a space station, or on a satellite – indeed, wherever the need arises. The information they uncover can be processed at the far edge.

Open source foundation critical for effective microservices management

Having an underlying open source substrate supporting the microservices is critical, for a couple of reasons.

First, open source provides more interoperability allowing for easier modifications and updates to assets whenever necessary. Proprietary systems can be difficult to manage on the ground, let alone in space, and making updates into a particular infrastructure can prove difficult, costly, and time-consuming.

Second, an expansive number of microservices require continuous management and orchestration. Existing ones are frequently updated, new ones are often deployed, and organizations need an infrastructure that supports the ability to do all of these things without impediment. An open source platform is the ideal solution because it provides the flexibility to easily connect, manage, observe, and orchestrate microservices.

Laying the groundwork for extraterrestrial data processing

Implementing the appropriate technology is not the only thing military leaders should be doing right now to prepare for data processing at the extraterrestrial edge. Laying the groundwork for this technological evolution will require a combination of strategic planning and private-sector partnerships.

On the planning front, defense organizations should begin defining their unique requirements and prioritizing their initiatives. As part of this, they may wish to establish governance and guidelines around their data processing activities. Working with consortia such as The National Consortium for Data Science may also be beneficial.

Government/private-sector collaborations can ignite innovation; government agencies have long seen the value in such partnerships, as evidenced by work that has been done by many organizations, including Red Hat and Lockheed Martin hosting NASA’s Artemis mission simulations.

Finally, while adopting open source technologies like micro­services and their underlying infrastructure, military organizations should take full advantage of the resources available to them in the open source development community. This community hosts numerous steering committees and working groups, as well as cooperative research opportunities that enable government agencies to work directly with developers to create optimal technologies for mission success.

In the case of data processing in space, those missions will take military leaders far beyond the terrestrial environment, which will make achieving the desired outcomes more challenging. But if they do achieve them, it will advance their operational goals and maintain a strategic and tactical advantage over adversaries. Fortunately, the tools to reach their operational and intelligence objectives are available and within reach, just like the stars themselves.

Travis Steele is Chief Architect within the global office of the CTO at Red Hat.

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