• NOAA-18 was launched into polar orbit in 2005 to provide NOAA access to a variety of environmental observations.
  • Cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for NOAA-18, one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, in a manner that will meet NOAA’s specifications.

To find a better use for an ageing weather satellite, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently turned to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore. It asked them to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep the satellite going.

After a year of the demonstration project, the three partners found a way to keep the satellite going with the use of cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” said Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

Conducted under the terms of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), the demonstration showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for NOAA-18, one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, in a manner that will meet NOAA’s specifications.

Kitay expressed satisfaction that the first successful satellite downlink could be successfully done just a month after the project began. “It is pretty amazing how rapidly we were able to move together to demonstrate the capabilities here,” he said.

The control system used Microsoft’s Azure Orbital infrastructure, including the company’s satellite ground station in Quincy, Washington. Xplore’s Major Tom mission control software platform was also used, which the company brought in-house as part of its acquisition of Kubos Corp.

“What’s wonderful about Major Tom is that you can do testing of signalling and commands before actually doing them live,” said Lisa Rich, Xplore’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “And so from the standpoint of sustainability and reliability, all of that speaks to the needs that NOAA has.”

NOAA and NESDIS had been trying to find an alternative use for the NOAA-18 satellite

In 2005 that NOAA-18 was launched into the polar orbit to give the organization access to various environmental observations. Since then, other spacecraft, beginning with NOAA-19 and continuing with a new series of polar-orbiting satellites that are a part of the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS, have taken over its function. The NOAA-18 satellite is essentially an on-orbit spare.

Mission managers at the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, or NESDIS, are reviewing the demonstration outcomes from the previous year to decide how best they can support the continued operation of NOAA-18 and other legacy satellites. The NESDIS team will offer suggestions for a course of action.

“Legacy polar satellites require additional support,” said Justin Gronert, JPSS mission operations manager at NOAA. “Under the CRADA with Xplore’s Major Tom and Microsoft, the capability to provide mission support was demonstrated, and we were able to conduct payload data processing via cloud-based mission control.”

According to Kitay, this demonstration could mark a “paradigm shift” in how government-funded satellites operate.

“What I would envision in the future would be a hybrid approach, where the government is integrating commercial as well as government systems, and working to have an integrated platform,” he said. “Certainly, the focus is to drive efficiencies, and part of that efficiency comes with a foundation that’s spread across more customers.”

Rich said that Major Tom is already being used for mission operations involving more than a dozen satellites. The software can handle secure connections over cloud computing services such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services.

“We are stepping on the gas with Major Tom,” Rich said. “We have a challenge to take on many more operators this year. We have companies building constellations and looking to have all of their satellites supported by Major Tom.

There is more to come

After the JPSS satellite constellation is fully developed, NOAA may transfer control of NOAA-18 and NOAA-19 to the U.S. Space Force, giving the outdated spacecraft new missions. A rapidly deployable, cloud-based ground control system marks all the boxes of the Space Force’s operational style.

Major Tom will also be used by Xplore for its satellites, beginning with a doughnut-sized Earth observation satellite. “We’re on track to be prepped for our first launch by the end of this year,” Rich said. “So, our engineering team is just forging ahead on schedule.”