Lockheed Martin studies how to use a cloud of satellites for space missions

Swarm of satellites
NASA and Lockheed Martin have been studying how small satellites could be knit together into a distributed swarm. (NASA Illustration)

More and more computing is being done in the cloud, but so far, the cloud-based approach hasn’t been applied in space.

Lockheed Martin is thinking about changing that.

The aerospace giant has already registered two trademarks for satellite cloud systems — HiveStar and SpaceCloud — and it’s considering how the approach can be applied to a range of space missions.

Yvonne Hodge, vice president and chief information officer at Colorado-based Lockheed Martin Space, lifted the curtain on the HiveStar project last week at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas.

“It’s not just about collecting the data and then sending it back to the ground for processing,” Hodge said. “It’s about analyzing the information in space … and then sending the knowledge, the intelligence back to Earth.”

Yvonne Hodge is vice president and chief information officer at Lockheed Martin Space. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One of the keys to the HiveStar architecture is Lockheed Martin’s recently announced SmartSat project, which will allow small satellites to be reprogrammed in orbit as easily as adding an app to a smartphone.

A team of engineers at Lockheed Martin has been working on an arrangement that would knit small satellites like SmartSats into a network for in-space communications and data processing.

NASA has been working on what sounds like a similar technology development program, known as the Swarm Optical Dynamics Adviser or SODA.

Nikita Patel, one of the engineers working on Lockheed Martin’s HiveStar project, said her team tested out network configurations using a set of experimental drones. “What we created was a ‘hive,’ a constellation of heterogeneous nodes that were self-organizing and self-tasking, much like our team,” Patel explained.

The network could serve as the basis for a permanent interplanetary information infrastructure. Data from robots and could be processed in the local hive, and the key bits of data could then be passed along through a series of nodes to their intended destinations.

“It would really only require 1-meter-wide mirrors, laser comms and strategically placed devices at various Lagrange points,” Patel said. “That’s all we would need, and we could ensure a continuous gigabit-per-second connection from Earth to anywhere. But that infrastructure doesn’t exist right now.”

Nikita Patel
Nikita Patel is an engineer at Lockheed Martin. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

After the presentation, Hodge told GeekWire that the HiveStar configuration could be used in environments ranging from low Earth orbit to deep space.

“It’s a constellation, but it’s the software-defined aspect of it that makes it a hive,” she said. “It’s not like you replicate the mission in every single satellite, but you can distribute the information in such a way so that if something happened to one, then the others can take over.”

Hodge said the project is being pushed forward because of customer interest — but declined to get too specific about the potential customers.

“It’s important stuff that’s classified,” she told GeekWire. “The concept is right on in terms of what they were looking for, so we’re working that — but now it’s broader.”

Hodge said HiveStar could see its first deployment within two years, “maybe even sooner.” That led me to ask whether the concept could be applied at the moon, which is the focus of a big exploration push on NASA’s part.

“Absolutely,” she said. “You’re good.”

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