Microsoft Positions Itself to Win Space Data Market With Azure Orbital

 In Infrastructure, Space, Information

ALBUQUERQUE: Azure Orbital, the space-con­nec­tions wing of Microsoft’s cloud ser­vice Azure, launched last week. By offer­ing Ground-Stations-as-a-Service, Microsoft wants to posi­tion itself as the bridge between the Pentagon and com­mer­cial satel­lites.

Ground sta­tions are vital infra­struc­ture for satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the phys­i­cal node that makes all the images and infor­ma­tion they col­lect useful. With the advent of lower-cost satel­lites, and the expan­sion of small satel­lite con­stel­la­tions in low earth orbit, the space indus­try is moving away from a locked-in model, where spe­cif­ic ven­dors only grant access to their satel­lites through their ground sta­tions.

“Space is just so crit­i­cal to every­thing we do here on earth,” says Frank Rose, a former assis­tant sec­re­tary of state for arms con­trol who is now at Brookings. “Deploying addi­tion­al capa­bil­i­ties, espe­cial­ly small satel­lites, in low earth orbit will def­i­nite­ly improve the resilien­cy of our nation­al secu­ri­ty space archi­tec­ture.”

Earlier this year, Microsoft Azure won the $10 bil­lion JEDI contract for Pentagon cloud ser­vices.

Offering Ground-Stations-as-a-Service means that the cus­tomers are only oblig­ed to pay for the amount of time they actu­al­ly need on the sta­tion. Cloud ser­vice providers already have a great deal of expe­ri­ence in flex­i­ble demand man­age­ment and in pro­cess­ing the data received in their servers. That makes ground sta­tions a nat­ur­al out­growth of exist­ing cloud com­pe­tences, the com­pa­ny argues.

In June 2020, the Space Development Agency said that rentable ground sta­tions make it easier for the mil­i­tary to piggy-back on exist­ing com­mer­cial infra­struc­ture.

When it comes to con­stel­la­tions of small satel­lites, what com­pa­nies are “trying to do is to opti­mize their pro­cess­ing archi­tec­ture, trying to min­i­mize how much com­pute you need to do on board because of the [Size, Weight and Power] con­straints, which inevitably leads them to do more on the ground,” says Mikhail Grinberg, prin­ci­pal at Renaissance Strategic Advisors.

Yet that prin­ci­pal doesn’t apply evenly across all appli­ca­tions. “For some mil­i­tary appli­ca­tions, given resilien­cy require­ments,” says Grinberg, “they’re trying to do more net­work­ing pro­cess­ing on board, as opposed to having an open pipe that can be tapped into.”

While Azure Orbital appears aimed at the space sector broad­ly, it is specif­i­cal­ly cul­ti­vat­ing ties to the Pentagon and the defense con­tract­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Partners signed up at launch include Amergint, Kongsberg Satellite Services, Viasat, and US Electrodynamics, all of whom have long his­to­ries of work­ing with the Pentagon.

Of par­tic­u­lar note is Azure Orbital’s part­ner­ship with Kratos, a com­pa­ny already actively working to make low-earth-orbit satel­lite space viable for mil­i­tary appli­ca­tions.

“Right now, the cur­rent nation­al secu­ri­ty space archi­tec­ture is very vul­ner­a­ble to other coun­tries’ Anti-Satellite capa­bil­i­ties, pri­mar­i­ly China’s and Russia’s,” says Rose. “If we can pro­lif­er­ate this con­stel­la­tion of small satel­lites, we can improve the resilien­cy of America’s nation­al secu­ri­ty space archi­tec­ture.”

The mil­i­tary is plan­ning for low earth orbit satel­lites in the battle management layer, ones that will pri­mar­i­ly be pro­cess­ing data on board, having access to com­mer­cial infra­struc­ture through Ground-Stations-as-a-Service increas­es the like­li­hood that they can be used when needed.

“For satel­lites in low earth orbit it might be days, three to four days before it’s over­head again. That’s the core prob­lem,” says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. “One way you can solve that is by build­ing a lot of ground sta­tions.”

“The more you have com­mer­cial guys doing infra­struc­ture on the ground,” says Grinberg, “if you can par­ti­tion the data right, you can pro­vide more resilien­cy.”

As part of its bid to build strong ties between Azure and the Department of Defense, Microsoft has specif­i­cal­ly hired career pro­fes­sion­als of the mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties. In late, Azure hired Chirag Parikh from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Parikh had pre­vi­ous­ly served as the Director of Space Policy for the White House.

William Chappell, CTO of Azure Global, announced Sept. 22nd that Azure Space had hired Stephen Kitay, former deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary of Defense for space policy, to head Azure’s space indus­try divi­sion.

It is, active­ly, a project to embed Microsoft in the infra­struc­ture of orbit. By posi­tion­ing itself as an inter­me­di­ary between the space sector and its end users, Microsoft can become anoth­er almost-invis­i­ble piece of that same infra­struc­ture. Azure Orbital would also offer Microsoft a greater role in other Pentagon satel­lite-based projects, like cloudONE and the Advanced Battle Management System. Being able to surge con­nec­tions with sen­sors in orbits, on demand, makes space far more flex­i­ble for human com­man­ders.

“In the last 5 years, there’s been a push from the mil­i­tary to move towards more common ground sys­tems,” says Weeden. What remains to be seen is if the mil­i­tary will be com­fort­able with com­mer­cial com­pa­nies oper­at­ing those common ground sys­tems, or if secu­ri­ty con­cerns will instead pre­clude mil­i­tary traf­fic riding com­mer­cial chan­nels.

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