Microsoft launches new cloud-based satellite control platform

Satellites are a lynchpin of our modern life, even if they do their work behind (above?) the scenes. But no matter how cool they are, if you can’t beam data to and from them, they aren’t much good.

Tech giant Microsoft has just unveiled Azure Orbital, it’s own “Ground Station As-a-Service” platform that allows for communication and control of satellites through a cloud-based system. This marks the second such system to be made commercially available, after Amazon’s AWS Ground Station.

Above the clouds

The new system was unveiled at Microsoft’s Ignite digital conference. While they may seem far removed from our daily or practical needs, the fact that we now have two commercial platforms to facilitate data transfer to and from satellites showcase how important their role has become in modern society.

“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” said Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure for Geekwire before the platform was officially unveiled. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”

“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service’.”

But exactly what does it do? In short, systems such as Azure allow ground-based operators to control crafts in orbit or to transfer, process, and integrate data, all through the cloud (an umbrella term for software and services that run on the Internet, instead of locally on your computer).

Microsoft is relying on several installations to provide this system. The company will use its own ground station located in Quincy, Washington, as well as those of several partners around the world. These include Norway-based company KSAT, which operates a network of over 200 antennas at two dozen sites around the world, and Luxembourg-based SES, currently one of the largest satellite operators in the world. Viasat, Amergint Technologies, Kratos, KubOS, and US Electrodynamics have also partnered up with Microsoft.

Interest for such cloud storage and processing of satellite data is definitely high. Russinovich explains that customers in the public and private domain, as well as government institutions, have already expressed interest in Azure Orbital.

“The digital signal processing that happens as the data comes off the satellite from the ground station into Azure. That is something that doesn’t require special hardware deployed in our data centers or in ground stations,” he said.

“It’s a software solution that we co-design with these partners.”

Exactly how the platform will fare against Amazon’s AWS Ground Station remains to be seen — its competitor does have an almost two-year advantage on Microsoft. Russinovich is confident, however, that there’s room for two on this market. They might even share customers and there’s even a chance that the two won’t need to go head-to-head. Back here on Earth, we consumers can only relish this stellar competition.

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