By Bethany Pulcini-Baldwin, Virtual Missions Product Lead
For decades, satellites have been a valuable resource for understanding events on Earth in slow motion, from assessing damage from extreme weather, to forecasting crop outputs, to predicting economic activity from the number of ships docked in a port.
At Loft, we believe that satellites can do more. Satellites should be able to provide answers and insights - not just raw data - in real time. Realizing this future requires us to shorten the time it takes to derive value from satellite data. Specifically, it means having the ability to parse, process, and analyze raw data onboard the satellite, at the moment of collection.
This requires that we think of satellites as more than just data collection platforms. They also need to be edge compute nodes, where software applications (apps) can run as easily as they do in a data center.
Over the past two years, Loft has quietly built the product stack that enables any developer to deploy software apps to Loft satellites, or what we call virtual missions. Today, we’re excited to announce YAM-6, the first virtual mission-enabled satellite. Launching on Transporter-10, YAM-6 will abstract away the hardware by providing access to Loft-owned sensors and compute nodes that support AI. This is a revolutionary shift in the space industry: you don’t have to own a satellite, or even a payload, to operate in space.
What is a virtual mission?
We define a virtual mission as the deployment of a customer-developed software app onto Loft’s space infrastructure to leverage onboard resources such as imagers and compute. YAM-6’s payloads include a hyperspectral imager, an RGB imager, a software-defined radio, and real-time connectivity via an inter-satellite link. They’re paired with a powerful robust set of CPU and GPU compute options and are AI-ready, with GPU acceleration for heavier AI workloads, such as image processing or change detection.
While many space companies are constrained to the traditional process of designing, building, integrating, testing, launching, and operating a satellite, Loft manages this challenging, capital-intensive process so the customer can directly access the data they need. Just as a developer can deploy their software to a cloud server, we’re providing the tools for customers to do the same with our satellites. In fact, we’ve already seen success with Agenium Space, a customer building AI algorithms that process imagery on-orbit to detect and identify ships.
How do virtual missions work?
Virtual missions represent Loft’s mission to make space simple in every sense. By providing an SDK (Software Development Kit) and environment for testing, we create a CI/CD (Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment) pipeline for space. This is all supported by our culture of SatDevOps. Here’s how virtual missions work:
Loft provides our customer with the SDK, which includes a clearly defined framework, documentation, and APIs.
Our customer develops their software app according to their business objectives.
The software app is deployed in the development environment to test and identify bugs to mitigate risk, before deployment into a production environment (AKA the satellite).
Then the software app is deployed to our infrastructure in space using Cockpit, our mission-agnostic operations software. By abstracting away hardware interactions, we can provide rapid access and a simple interface for any application.
Our partner, Microsoft, provides the cloud development environment and on-orbit application framework that makes this possible on YAM-6. Any developer using Microsoft’s Azure Orbital space edge can easily deploy software apps to a Loft satellite with our Loft-specific satellite APIs that give access to our onboard sensors and compute platforms.
Why do we need virtual missions?
Virtual missions provide the opportunity to radically shorten time to orbit. Customers can deploy their own software apps to our infrastructure to analyze data as it is being collected, enabling all kinds of use cases like tip-and-cue, response and sensor fusion. Software apps that require compute power, like AI and Machine Learning, enable us to use the unique vantage point of space in a variety of important ways.
YAM-6 will deploy a number of virtual missions from customers, right after launch. One of the most exciting parts of this industry shift is that we don’t know exactly what our customers will come up with. We’re just at the beginning of an ecosystem of developers and applications that run on Loft’s space infrastructure, and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
Got an idea for a space application? We want to hear from you! Send us a note at email@example.com.