How Space-based Computing is Changing the Future of Space Exploration

Taking computing to the edge of space.

GuideForce OrbitsEdge Executive Spotlight Story Preview

Computing is coming to a star system near, or perhaps far from you. We have been sending computing power into space since the 1960s, yet space-based computer hardware has severely lagged earth-based hardware power, speed and overall capabilities.

Lagging technology

Radiation is a big issue for space-based computing and the smaller components we use in today’s latest smartphones and computers are more prone to radiation damage. Over time, radiation-hardening was used to create space-grade processors, but size, weight and, particularly high power consumption encumbered space-based computing environments. And still, the technology used in space was always years or even decades behind the technology being used on earth.

Micro datacenters are the future of space-based computing

Today, the future of space-based computing will likely be commanded by orbiting datacenters – that is if HPE and an exciting new space startup called OrbitsEdge™ have anything to say about it. Space offers some natural benefits for datacenters including built-in cooling and renewable solar energy. Instead of hardening the individual components, OrbitsEdge is providing what it calls a SatFrame to house space-based micro datacenters. This hardware solution will make it possible to use off-the-shelf components to put current computing technology into space.

Space-based startup success

Rick Ward CEO OrbitsEdge
Rick Ward, CTO, OrbitsEdge

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Rick Ward, the CTO of OrbitsEdge. He not only shared how OrbitsEdge will bring powerful micro datacenter computing to space, he also shared his best startup growth lessons.

“We are developing an environment that will let terrestrial datacenter grade computers operate in space. We won’t get everywhere immediately, but opening the door for having current computing technology in space is game-changing,”

Rick Ward, CTO, OrbitsEdge

Today’s computing power in space

“We are developing an environment that will let terrestrial datacenter grade computers operate in space. That means when the 2023 server models are replaced with 2024s, we will be flying those servers that same year. It means current hardware for space from now on. We won’t get everywhere immediately, but opening the door for having current computing technology in space is game-changing,” shares Ward.

Lesson 1 – Don’t launch without customers

When it comes down to getting to business, startups can’t get far without customers. This seems to go without saying, yet surprisingly, this can be one of the most common missing pieces.

Data everywhere

“Customers are the most important part of building a business. If you have not identified customers, don’t spend anyone’s money until you have customers. We are not really about putting computing in space, but rather making data more useful, available faster and making it easier and quicker to draw conclusions. You will always create data faster than you can process it,” states Ward.

Don’t leave it by the roadside

“There are a ton of bright engineers with science projects they would like to try out. I’ve seen a lot of cool technologies, but they are dead on the side of the road because they did not identify customers first. You need to have your bootstrapping plan down. One of the best ways you can convince investors that their money is not just going to be thrown away is to show them customers that want your solution. If there is a reasonable chance the money will come back to them, then you have a shot at it,” explains Ward.

Computing at the edge of space

OrbitsEdge Solution Graphic

“There are three things you can do with data: create it, move it and manipulate it. We are making it easier and faster to do all these things by doing some of the work at the edge. In this case, we are doing it at the edge of space. This will eliminate many of the latency issues that are faced in satellite communications. We are bringing the computing resources to the data instead of bringing the data back down to earth before it can be assessed and used,” says Ward.

Lesson 2 – People that don’t plan have more than their fair share of bad luck

In the early stages of a startup, it can be challenging to make plans and stick to them. But, as Rick explains, not having a plan is planning to fail.

“The more options you have the more chances for success. If you don’t have a plan for your business, someone else will come up with one, and you probably won’t like it. Bringing edge computing to space isn’t easy. There are a lot of moving pieces and an entire ecosystem of partners you need to rely on. Without a plan, it would be impossible to make this happen.” says Ward.

Principals at the core

GuideForce OrbitsEdge Infographic Computing in Space

“You need to have a clear core business model, principles and your commitment to them. You need to be able to clearly articulate why your organization exists. Then your actions must actually resemble what you say. We see meeting our benchmarks as one of the crucial areas for our business. Our first SatFrame launch will be in 2021. This system won’t have all the bells and whistles of the production solution, but we will earn revenue and learn important things about how our solutions will perform in the harsh space environment,” shares Ward.

Lesson 3 – The trick of investors

For many startups, outside investors represent the only way to scale the business, obtain the necessary infrastructure and tools and hire the talent needed. There are pluses and minuses though.

“I’ve seen investors come in and ask a company to make a complete shift in the company direction.  Then, a year later another one and another. Pretty soon they don’t get another chance. While the investor drives the cash, sometimes the money isn’t worth it. The chaos caused by the changes ultimately leads to unhappy investors and a failed business,” says Ward.

Vetting should go both ways

“At the same time, sometimes investors see things that founders don’t see. Having investors that have extensive industry experience and connections can be invaluable. Ultimately, it is a balancing act. When bringing in investors, the company leaders should be vetting the investors as much as the investors are vetting the business opportunity,” explains Ward.

“For OrbitsEdge, as space becomes more accessible, there are more companies wanting to do more with data in space and from space. We see taking computing into orbit as a natural extension of supporting what all those organizations are doing,” says Ward. 

Lesson 4 – Develop a common language

When you are disrupting a market or doing something that has never been done before, company leaders and early-stage employees will develop their own language. The technology and space industries have a lot of jargon. Rick says this can present challenges.

Create a glossary

“Half our team is from the datacenter computing industry and the other half has worked in the space industry. Traditionally, these industries haven’t intersected like they are beginning to today. We have had to parse together a language everyone on the team can understand. We have our own glossary so when our team is communicating, we eliminate misunderstandings. It saves an enormous amount of time and energy; both of which we always need more of.

Lesson 5 – Admit where your expertise ends.

When you are a leader, people expect you to have all the answers and to know everything. At least, it can seem that way. It can be difficult to admit when you don’t know about something. But Rick says this is a really important thing to do.

Building respect, not losing it

“You need to know where your expertise ends. I have been known to say things like, “I don’t know anything about what you just said, where can I learn about it?” Then learning about that topic becomes my obsession. I’ve found admitting what you don’t know and asking for guidance on where you can learn about it garners a lot of respect. It is certainly better than getting caught saying something that makes it clear you are beyond your area of expertise,” encourages Ward.

Lesson 6 – Something that matters with a capital M

Finding meaning in your work increases your enjoyment in your work, makes you want to put more effort into your work and creates a passion in the way to talk about your work that is contagious. Finding that meaning can be tough, particularly as you make major career transitions.

Searching for meaning

“In my time in the United States Marine Corps, I came to be part of an organization that was bigger than me. Coming out of that was difficult because it was hard to find something that mattered with a capital M. There were things that kept you fed. But I was finding it difficult to identify something that made me truly excited to get out of bed in the morning,” reflects Ward.

The case for space

GuideForce Lisa Dreher Original Oil Painting Space Based Computing

“I got into the space industry and felt a sense of mission again. Everything we do here is literally toward advancing humanity’s chance of long-term survival. Not just our survival, but all the creatures we share this planet with. To go deeper into space, we need to move more of the resources to support those efforts into space. I don’t know what shape it will take in the millennia to come. Yet, what I do know is that making us a spacefaring species will help everything outside my window exist beyond my lifetime,” concludes Ward.

The future for OrbitsEdge

Rick imagines a future where there are tons of computers in space. OrbitsEdge partner, HPE, launched an Apollo Edgeline converged edge system into space two years ago. It was in operation for about a year and a half. During that time, a number of tests were conducted. Valuable insights were gained from that work and these insights have been helpful in planning for mission success in 2021 and beyond. HPE is at the forefront of space-based computing and has another spaceborne supercomputer mission coming up soon. OrbitsEdge sees HPE as a key partner in bringing enterprise-grade computing to space.

Let’s review the lessons Rick Ward, CTO of OrbitsEdge, shared with us.

  1. Don’t launch without customers
  2. Earn revenue and good luck
  3. Investors are partners
  4. Develop a common language
  5. Admit where your expertise ends
  6. Find something that matters with a capital M

To learn more about OrbitsEdge, visit https://orbitsedge.com.

Checkout another story in the Executive Spotlight series and learn about how a new space startup is extending interplanetary exploration with gas stations in space.

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