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IBM and Sierra Space develop ‘space cloud’ for orbital data management

Servicing a growing economy in low-Earth orbit will require a dedicated 'space cloud' platform, according to IBM and Sierra Space.

By Ryan Morrison

Ushering in the ‘orbital age’ where commercial activity spreads into space will require “robust space compute and data capability,” declares Ken Shields, senior director of business development at Sierra Space, one of the companies developing the Orbital Reef commercial space station.

Future space stations will require significant computing capabilities and IBM is working with Sierra Space to develop a platform to service the space cloud (Photo: Sierra Space)
Future space stations will require significant computing capabilities and IBM is working with Sierra Space to develop a platform to service the space cloud. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Space)

Within the next three years, Sierra Space plans to send a test station into orbit that will prove its technology works and can be used for humans to stay in space, but first, they need to work out how to manage data and that is where a new partnership with IBM comes into play.

They will work together to develop the next generation of space technology and software platforms that will run across Sierra Space’s range of space vehicles and infrastructure including the Dream Chaser space plane scheduled to fly for the first time next year with cargo for the ISS.

A memorandum of understanding between the two companies will see IBM integrate its technology that will coordinate tasks undertaken by astronauts, connect devices in orbit and help send data from research projects back to the Earth.

‘Challenging to move data round in space’

“It is challenging when you are trying to move the data around. Today on the ISS we can do a decent job of data storage,” said Shields. “It is limited, we know how to have it secure and ensure it isn’t corrupted or damaged by the environment in space. The challenge is moving it around.

“Space to ground is one of the biggest challenges. One of the problems we must overcome is the volume of data, sending large amounts of data from space to Earth takes a long time so we need to focus on building this infrastructure in space where it can be processed in orbit using edge computing and then smaller packets of information can be sent to the Earth.”

IBM’s technology platform will allow Sierra Space to improve in-orbit processing as well as allow for more automation “to deliver actionable insights, automate application and data flows to improve client experiences, automate networks to deliver zero-touch operations, and generate deeper insights into threats, orchestration actions and automate responses.”

They will create a single unified and flexible distributed computing environment for the orbital ecosystem that can be built on over time. This will include the use of AI and edge computing, as well as provide access for multiple vendors, according to IBM.

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“IBM is committed to reinvigorating approaches to science and innovation to meet today’s biggest challenges. Collaborating with a leader like Sierra Space will support the growth of a more robust space economy in low-Earth orbit and beyond,” added Naeem Altaf, CTO IBM Space.

“There is unlimited potential for humanity’s future in space. We see Sierra Space as a core leader and collaborator in advancing that vision. In this envisioned – but secured – environment, collaborators and partners will be able to innovate, co-create, and co-operate together at scale in a way that drives mutual benefit for the space industry as a whole.”

This will include the creation of a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive platform to effectively service the cloud in space and drive mission operations.

A platform to help humanity grow

Shields told Tech Monitor: “Our vision is to build platforms that let humanity grow and expand what we do on Earth into space. Creating a place to live, work and even manufacture away from the planet. We need to lay down the infrastructure to do that.

“An important part of infrastructure is compute. That includes, storing and analysing data and the partnership with IBM lays a foundation. We will be able to build early on in space cloud, edge compute, data mining, and data analyzation capability next to where activity is happening.”

The partnership extends beyond the upcoming commercial space station, a partnership with Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin which was awarded $130m by Nasa last year for work on the facility.

“Sierra Space is leading the design, development and operations for the future of commercial space and infrastructure,” said Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice. “Through this planned agreement with IBM, we will leverage the full depth of its industry expertise and innovative technology portfolio to evaluate and support unique in-space challenges we will face as we build the future of commercial space.

“Effective hybrid space platforms will allow us to derive previously untapped value from the growing quantities of data generated in space. Together, we will leverage secured AI to drive new capability for Sierra Space, IBM, the broader orbital ecosystem, and the new space economy.”

Shields told Tech Monitor we are on the “precipice of the orbital age” which will bring about a “growing economy, new discovery and improve life on Earth”, launching a new “industrial revolution” of manufacturing, hospitality, work and data above the Earth.

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