6 mins read 02 Jul 2021

Spiral Blue’s Prototype Computers Reaches Orbit

Sydney-based start-up, Spiral Blue, has launched two of its prototype computers into space, heralding a new era of onboard processing for Earth Observation data.

One of the STORK satellites as it approaches orbit aboard the Virgin Orbit rocket (supplied).

Sydney-based start-up, Spiral Blue, was celebrating today after the successful launch of two of its prototype computers, onboard Virgin Orbit’s air-to-space LauncherOne rocket – which took off over the skies of the Mojave Desert in California in the early hours of this morning.

The computers - known as Space Edge Zero (SEZ) – form part of an image processing unit that is expected to increase the efficiency in collecting imaging data from space before transmitting it to Earth. Each prototype SEZ was coupled with the STORK-4 and STORK-5 satellites, which are produced by Polish manufacturer SatRevolution. 

Virgin Orbit’s “Tubular Bells, Part One” mission successfully placed both satellites, as well seven others (for other clients such as the US Department of Defence and the Royal Netherlands Air Force) into a 500 km altitude sun-synchronous orbit.

“We’re incredibly thankful to see the successful launch and deployment of the satellites carrying our Space Edge Computers,” Spiral Blue’s CEO, Taofiq Huq, said. “We are looking forward to working with SatRevolution to begin testing our hardware in orbit.”

As part of the prototype testing of these two computers, the imaging units located as part of the STORK-4 and STORK-5 satellites (effectively, their camera units) will pass on their captures to the SEZ computers located onboard each satellite. These computers will then commence their real-time processing of the raw data, before outputting the final products to be transmitted back to Earth. 

In terms of timeframes, and what the team is expecting, it will be a few months before any results are released, pending the collaborative work between Spiral Blue and SatRevolution. 

"We're still working this out with SatRevolution, but we should hopefully start getting results in the next 2 months or so," said Taofiq. "Initially, we're just hoping to get some telemetry from our Space Edge Computers to confirm that they're working, and hopefully working well."

Revolutionising Earth Observation

The Nvidia Jetson nano core, which makes up part of the Space Edge Zero computer. Credit: Nvidia.

Ever since satellites first started looking down at Earth, capturing images and data of our dynamic planet, our lives have dramatically changed. For the majority of humanity – this has proved a vital tool in helping us better understand our environment and react more quickly to mitigate risks and seize opportunities.

Known as Earth Observation (EO), this remote sensing technique has allowed us to track meteorological changes in both the short term (e.g., localised weather) and the longer-term (i.e., climate change); be prepared for, or able to pivot resources in the event of natural disasters; catch the variances in our precious resources – such as crops, water, and soil which drive our economic positions; and help ensure international and regional legislative requirements are adhered to (such as ensuring illegal fishing vessels are not exploiting resources or harming sensitive environments).

It’s been several decades since satellites in orbit have been capturing EO data, and the legacy technology has remained steady since. But as more satellites start to head into orbit, and more demand for their services increases here on Earth, this legacy technology starts to become a barrier to optimisation.

A problem faced by many satellites currently in orbit is related to the efficiency in transmission of raw data back down to Earth. As the need for higher-resolution imaging, mapping and monitoring increases, so too does the size of data packages captured by the satellites.

Whilst camera capabilities have increased exponentially (i.e., imaging from space is at the best quality it has ever been in history, whilst the size of cameras have decreased to their smallest), the data captured by these powerful tools still requires an inefficient amount of time to be transmitted down to Earth, due to its size, before being processed.

This is where Australian-based start-up Spiral Blue steps in. The company’s SEZ computer changes the EO game, allowing data packages (such as images) to be processed onboard the satellite, making them much smaller packages for transmission back to Earth.

"Earth observation satellites carrying Space Edge Computers will see a significant boost in capacity, allowing them to return information on far greater areas than before," said Taofiq. 

"With Space Edge Computing, raw data can now be processed onboard the satellite rather than having to be sent to Earth and processed on the ground. This should allow for a reduction in costs and improvement in accessibility and lead times. Consequently, making Earth observation accessible to all, including small companies, startups, and even subsistence farmers in developing nations."

This improves the lead time, flexibility and application of EO services, opening up the affordability and availability of these services to more ground-based companies, which in turn will provide their products and services to the wider community.

Support from the Australian Space Sector

An artist’s impression of the SatRevolution SW1FT satellite. Credit: Spiral Blue.

The Australian Space Agency has also recognised the potential value in this technology developed by Spiral Blue and has recently awarded the company with one of the first Moon to Mars Initiative Supply Chain Program grants of $416,000 in March this year to further develop its software, making it ready for space.

The technology developed by Spiral Blue is currently (and will be) utilised across a range of different areas of the community, including defence, city planning, utilities, and other industries. The Sydney based SME was founded in 2018 as a graduate from the Catalysr accelerator program for migrants and refugees, already gaining lots of support from the Australian space sector, and in a sign of true success – launching their products into orbit only three years after starting up.

"Once we confirm our payloads are working, we're looking to take the company to the next level," added Taofiq. "We're currently about 10 people right now, and will need to grow significantly to bring Space Edge Services into operation. Please keep an eye out on our website for new job listings in the next few months!"