Simone Briatore always had a passion for the world beyond Earth. As a child, he was fascinated with space movies, and during his university studies, he sought to combine two worlds – electronics and space. After earning his Ph.D. in Systems Engineering in a joint program between Skoltech in Russia and MIT in the US, he went on to found Golbriak Space to commercialize the results: improving data exchange between satellites using the internet. Simone took the stage at 2018 SHIFT Business Festival to talk about Intelligent Space.
Simone’s quest for federated electro-optical (EO) systems started as a test for his Ph.D. study, where he was able to connect two stratospheric balloons via an optical link. The stratosphere provides conditions similar to outer space, making the balloon test the first step in establishing a communication channel between satellites in Earth’s orbit. This could be a game changer, drastically improving our ability to make use of satellite-obtained data about our planet.
Taking the experiment from the stratosphere to space meant taking the distance between the two points from 30–40 kilometers to 1000 kilometers, making it more difficult to create the optical link. Pointing a laser beam towards a small cube 1000 kilometers away is definitely a challenge, but according to Simone, it’s one worth going the extra mile for. Aside from being a pioneering effort to connect distant objects with an optical interlink, taking the technology out of the books and into practice, Simone’s work is about creating an interconnected satellite system.
Simone believes that this is the first step towards a stable interconnected satellite network that will revolutionize the way we are able to observe and measure the Earth from space. The idea has already sparked interest, and in November 2017, Golbriak Space won the Copernicus Master Award for the cost-effectiveness of their federated EO system by demonstrating how the system can measure ice thickness and extent as well as numerous other geographical and environmental attributes.
Golbriak Space’s innovations could help solve two issues that university researchers are constantly faced with when collecting data: time and the price tag. For example, to obtain a measurement of ice thickness, researchers today need to either buy the data from a third party who has a satellite up in space or to build their own satellite. Simone’s vision for the next generation of satellite missions would mean that in the future, researchers in need of observational data about the Earth would only need an internet connection.
In short, the goal is to share resources by creating a federated satellite missions system. In Simone’s Ph.D. study, the biggest hindrance was the non-existing communication between satellites. This basic defect is what we need to overcome in order to utilize the full potential of the space technologies we already have. Now, in order to get a picture from a desired target, we first have to wait for the satellite to be on top of the target. Then we need to give the command, and then wait for the satellite to come back within reach of the station on Earth to retrieve the data. It is a lot of waiting, and for us, living in an information-driven society, waiting until the stars are aligned is not something we like to do.
According to Simone, having a network in the sky would decrease our need for self-sufficiency – that is, not every research organisation would need their own satellite – increasing our ability to utilize data and hardware while reducing costs. The plan is to make use of the LEO satellites, which are the smallest and closest to Earth, and which are expected to double in number by 2023. Once the internet expands beyond Earth, instead of sitting and waiting for the right line-up, we will need only one of many possible satellites to be at the right place at the right time.
While preparing for the first launch and test in space, Simone recognizes that creating a stable network and convincing the public of the safety of the internet in space are challenges that still need to be solved before we can run our own satellite missions from the living room sofa. However, he believes it’s possible, and he is not the only one:
Right after SHIFT in June 2018, Golbriak Space won the Airbus Challenge in Berlin with a demonstration of how Cloud Computing in the ISS could be used with satellites, this time being awarded based on the potential to reduce the time between satellite data acquisition and availability. This could revolutionize our use of satellites through the introduction of new capabilities, such as automated feature detection for Earth observing spacecraft, enhanced spacecraft autonomy (cognitive satellites) or real-time machine learning on space data.
Stay tuned for the first public launch and trial to create an optical link beyond the stratosphere.