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Ball at the forefront of onboard processing with new AFRL work

Ball at the forefront of onboard processing with new AFRL work
By David Ellis 07/13/2021
A wave of recent innovation in autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, and other commercial technologies is powered by state-of-the-art processing electronics. Ball Aerospace, together with the Air Force Research Laboratory, is exploring how to use the same state-of-the-art commercial electronics to enable “smart satellites” to process data in space – a key enabler for next-gen missions.


The importance of on-orbit processing

As the sensors we put in space become more advanced, the size of the data they produce has grown dramatically. Beaming all that raw data down to Earth for processing and dissemination requires massive amounts of bandwidth, which may not always be available, and can add latency in fast reaction decision making. As on-orbit autonomy increases, the need for processing to host these tools increases as well. As adversaries rapidly advance their space capabilities, this information delay will become a strategic vulnerability for U.S. national space systems.

This increasingly complex and dynamic global security environment is driving substantial change across the Department of Defense (DoD). During a recent Foreign Policy Research Institute event, Gen. David D. Thompson, the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, said of USSF’s need to move faster to counter adversaries, “we’ve got to adapt to the 21st century world, or we will be left behind.”

On-orbit processing, whereby spacecraft and sensors use AI to process data at the point of collection, will be key for future highly capable space missions getting products to end users in a timely fashion.


Unleashing the potential of commercial electronics

While electronics capable of performing on-orbit processing exist and are being used effectively in terrestrial technologies like self-driving cars, they have yet to be flown in space because they were not designed to survive launch vibrations or the harsh temperature and radiation environments of space.

In fact, state-of-the-art radiation-hardened electronics for space applications can lag their commercial counterparts’ capabilities by nearly a decade. This delay is due in part to DoD technology development processes that are over-optimized to deliver exceptional reliability and long lifetimes within space radiation environments at the cost of capability, expense, and timely delivery.


Innovative solutions: a new HOPE

Rendering of a spacecraft orbiting EarthTo accelerate adaptation of advanced commercial electronics into space systems, a team from Ball Aerospace and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate has proposed the Heterogeneous On-Orbit Processing Engine (HOPE) concept, a solution that would significantly upgrade on-orbit processing performance and reduce the lag between commercial processing and on-orbit use.

First presented in 2019, the recently updated HOPE concept assembles a mix of commercial processor boards under a radiation-hardened “supervisor” that performs mitigation functions to maximize survivability of the commercial boards, providing sufficient reliability for moderate radiation environments in space.

The HOPE concept has the potential to unleash the capabilities of on-orbit processing through the adoption of advanced commercial electronics, accelerating the rate of technology refresh on orbit and providing advanced processing capabilities to support future DoD, civil and commercial space system concepts. Read more: Heterogeneous On-Orbit Processing Engine (HOPE) Architecture Design for Edge Processing in Space (IEEE.org).
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