Data Centers in Space Pt. 2

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Rick Ward, CTO, and Founder of OrbitsEdge, describes how space is becoming increasingly accessible.

Announcer: Welcome to Not Your Father’s Data Center podcast brought to you by Compass Datacenters. We build for what’s next. Now here’s your host, Raymond Hawkins.

Raymond Hawkins: Welcome again, to another edition of Not Your Father’s Data Center. I’m Raymond Hawkins, your host. We are joined again, for the second time by Chief Technology Officer and founder of OrbitsEdge, Rick Ward. Rick, thanks for coming and talking with us again. We appreciate it.

Rick Ward: It’s my pleasure, man.

Raymond Hawkins: Rick. So, there’s a bunch of stuff going on in outer space. It’s been making a lot of news. The stuff that makes the news, I don’t think necessarily is the most interesting. It’s awesome that William Shatner got shot up into space for 45 seconds or whatever it was, but I don’t think that’s near the coolest thing going on. So, would you give us your take a little bit on the billionaire boys club racing to go into space and come right back down. And why that gets so much attention and then let’s transition into the actual business of what’s going on in space?

Rick Ward: I would say probably the reason that is getting so much attention, is first of all, I really loved the Shatner experience. I’ve listened to, watched and even spoken with a fair number of astronauts. And the way he described it when he was just fresh on the ground. And there’s still smoke coming off the ship, wherever the ship ended up landing. That was fantastic. I remember one of the astronauts, one time said they should have sent a poet. And the way Shatner was speaking immediately afterwards, they finally did. And I’ve heard some very well spoken astronaut speak. And his take on that was just… The way he compared it to the realm of life and the realm of death. And the blackness and the void and the… It is like the light and dark dichotomy…

Rick Ward: You have light here and then you have the cold darkness over there. That was a very powerful set of images he created. And I feel stuff like that resonates with regular folks. And also it bridges. It says, William Shatner is the space guy we know from our youth. He’s the guy who did all the movies and he fought the Klingon and he made peace with the Klingon ultimately. And he did all these things, and now he is intersecting with the real space program. And going there in the flesh as a man, not as a character. And that does bridge things. We’re going to see… I guess Tom cruise is going to go up there relatively soon-ish, sometime next year I think. He’s going to be working on a movie there. Going to get some footage there…

Rick Ward: We’ll see others who follow it’s going to be. The names are going to get smaller and smaller until they’re regular folks. That makes me think about Inspiration4. That SpaceX also flew where they actually had four relatively normal people. I mean, good grief. One of them was a slightly chubby older guy. And another one was a girl who had titanium in her body. Cancer survivor. We’re getting more and more to the place where I can see myself there. And that is a big deal. That’s you don’t have a space bearing civilization when the only people who go up there are less numerous than Olympic gold medalists.

Raymond Hawkins: Right? My father spent years working for Boeing aerospace, working on Space Station Freedom. And his job was to interact with the astronauts. He had a Degree in Engineering and a Degree in Psychology. And here on earth, we call that ergonomics and in his world it was human factors engineering. How do we engineer the space station so that the astronauts like it. And he said the same thing, right? He said, these astronauts, there’s so few people who’ve ever been to space that, he had a very small pool of people he could interview and try to understand, what needed to be done there, because it’s such a small group of people. And I think what you’re alluding to such a small group of people be some pretty elite qualifications.

Rick Ward: Absolutely. It’s the best of the best, that the most powerful nations in the world have been able to assemble.

Raymond Hawkins: And all of that is changing.

Rick Ward: Not a civilization.

Raymond Hawkins: Exactly. Right, too.

Rick Ward: It’s not a civilization.

Raymond Hawkins: We’re not going to go live up. We’re not going to send those guys to go mining or any things like that up there. You are right.

Rick Ward: No.

Raymond Hawkins: That’s going to be regular folks.

Rick Ward: Although with mining, it’s going to be robots. Lots of robots. People will be in the general vicinity if you’re relatively loose with your definition of general vicinity.

Raymond Hawkins: All right, Rick. Well, so all of that, so I love the Shatner angle. I like your comment, right? Seeing him in my youth, on the TV. The three seasons of Star Trek and what came in the movies. Yes. Seeing a character now actually be in space is pretty fascinating stuff. I guess what I was alluding to is Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and those guys competing to get into space. Elon versus the real business side of it. And if you’d help us get a little bit more of arms around, what’s really going on. We’re deploying satellites. We’re setting up rockets on a regular basis. I think it’s more frequent than most people recognize. And would you talk about a little bit about that? The business side of what we’re doing, putting payloads in space.

Rick Ward: So, one of the issues with space, any space business, any space thing you want to do, it’s a series of chicken and egg problems. In order for me to make money off of this, the thing has to exist. And before it can exist, I need to have some money. So, that’s, one of the big issues. There’s relatively few ways to bootstrap yourself into space because the hardware that you need for space operations is not the same hardware you need for ground operations. Even with better processes, it’s still going to be more expensive and more complicated than aircraft parts. And aircraft parts are pretty darn expensive anyway. So, you’ve got that. It takes a long time and it’s expensive to build stuff that’s going to go into space. And that makes it really hard to close a lot of the business cases because you need cash flow every day. Kind of like you got to eat every day…

Rick Ward: So, by having people who are independently wealthy, it gives them a long runway. It gives them the ability to say, “I know this isn’t going to make money for five, 10 years, but I’m going to do it anyway”. Branson has multiple different things going on. He has his crude stuff, but he is also launching rockets off of a 747. I think that’s called Cosmic Girl. And they’ve actually had some successful launches and putting… I can’t remember if its real payloads or test payloads into orbit. So, they’ve had some success there and they actually have some plans towards iterating that to a more capable system. So, that’s, pretty cool. And that’s also a very expensive endeavor. And it’s one where having a fleet of 747 is kind of convenient. So, he basically took a ship that he already owned, did some stuff to it that was less expensive for him than me and put rockets in space…

Rick Ward: So, there’s a pathway there that doesn’t exist for somebody who doesn’t have that backing and infrastructure inherent to themselves. Same goes for Bezos and Blue Origin. They can liquidate a small fraction of stock and fund that thing year over year. The downside to that is, you can end up in a where you have advisors giving you bad advice. And because they just assume you’re Mr. Money bags and there’s never a bottom to the bag. They just say, I can just ride this thing for the next 10, 15, 20 years. I don’t ever actually have to produce results. I can just be out here as long as I’m doing something. Make it look convincing. I’ll keep getting funded. And there’s a couple of companies that don’t exactly work that way, but you can make the uncharitable case, that’s what they’re doing…

Rick Ward: There’s also, if you don’t have a certain leanness to it, doesn’t drive you towards optimal efficiency. So, if you have just barely enough money to get to where you need to get, then it makes you be more efficient. It makes you say, how much of this bureaucracy in my company is necessary. And how much can I get rid of. If you don’t have that fear of dying, then you can just build up the wrong things. You can put your time and energy into things that aren’t truly necessary. You can have processes that extend things out and make things take longer than they should. There’re all sorts of fatal things that you can get into by not having a sense of urgency. And we’re seeing that in some of the billionaire companies, but still I would much rather…

Rick Ward: And I’ll echo the Head of Roscosmos Rogozin. I will echo him and say, he made a comment said, I wish our billionaires would start working on space projects instead of trying to compete, to see who can build the biggest yacht. I would love it if the top 100, 200,000, whatever richest people in the world put a sizable chunk of their fortunes into doing things like that matters space travel, human longevity, alternative ways of growing food. All these things that solve problems that we as a species are having, or will have soon. Solving those problems would be a tremendous boon towards humanity.

Raymond Hawkins: And [crosstalk 00:11:13] a little bit better use than buying another boat.

Rick Ward: Do I need a boat that can land one helicopter or five?

Raymond Hawkins: So, Rick, we were, as we talk about billionaires building more boats, not necessarily contributing to the good of humanity, or I liked your phrase, human longevity, bigger problems, and getting folks with endless resources of capital to invest some of that in things that can help more than just their sun tan would be nice. I agree with you there. And we get some of that from the space work because of the things that understanding and learning about space can do to help us as a species in a planet.

Rick Ward: If you look at it from a historical perspective, that all of the stuff that you see in museums, all the sculptures, all the paintings, all of those things. They were commissioned by the richest men of their eras. They were commissioned by Princes and Kings and later on by wealthy merchants. And the centralization of that degree of wealth has opened the possibility for advancements that can extend on into posterity. Not just through technology, but through art as well. So, it’s a consideration.

Raymond Hawkins: And I love the perspective too. You’re right. These sculptures or paintings, someone paid that artist, someone commissioned them and it was to your point, the wealthiest people of the day. And although there’re music and arts being created today, we don’t treat it like it was treated then. And these efforts, going to space or coming up with medicines or water treatment facilities for the third world. There’re things where we can invest that do contribute to the greater good out of these large net worth individuals. All right. I’m switching gears on you. Let’s talk a little bit about OrbitsEdge, if you’re willing…

Raymond Hawkins: I’d love to understand what you guys are doing. For me, it’s an intersection between our world and your world, right? Your world is data and space. My world’s data here on the dirt. Down here on [inaudible 00:13:22]. Would love to understand what you guys are doing up there, why you’re doing it. I think I get my arms around. Let’s do as much processing up there to avoid as much back haul costs back down here to do processing. I think I get that at a high level, but I’d love it if you talk us through some of that.

Rick Ward: Sure. And I would also say that we have seen in the past six months to a year, we’ve seen almost a sea change in the way the space community is looking at some of this stuff. The reason for high powered compute in space is, as you said, lets to do the compute up there before we send stuff back down here. And some of that is because there’s a significant bottleneck in the transport layer. In getting stuff from there to here. We have a much greater ability to capture and generate data than we do to move it. And even with optical, that’s still going to be a thing years into the future, a long time into the future. So, if you could only transport a fraction of the data you capture, then don’t you want to have that data be the best data that you can get, the best data that you can you winnow out.

Raymond Hawkins: Or the most useful data, for sure.

Rick Ward: Yes. So, it’s like saying you’re generating all these haystacks and what you’re interested in is needles. And the current way of doing that is to load the whole haystack on a giant truck and truck it across the country, so that you can find the needles. And you can imagine that is expensive and inefficient. So, if you have a way of separating out those needles, then you can put the needles in a small box and it’s much easier. So, image capture is haystack generation. Compute is needle finding. And we want to put the needle finding ability before the transport layer. So, that’s, the super layman’s view of it.

Raymond Hawkins: No, that across the country analysis or analogy is a great one. I think it’s easier to get our arms around. What does the bandwidth between low Earth orbit and earth look like? My first question? And I know it’s probably a dumb, not understanding space guy question. How do we get data shipped into countries? Because I think about wireless networks down here in the US, and all of that spectrum is auctioned off by the government and businesses make an economically viable use case for why to pay for that spectrum and how to transmit over it. How does that work when we start going into space?

Rick Ward: Some of that’s exactly the same. So, you have various different bands from like K/Ka, KU, X and a few others that are military domains. You have all these various bands. Each of the bands has different inherent characteristics to it, where some of them have more reliability, but less throughput and others have greater throughput, but they’re more susceptible to the effects of weather and things like that. Some of it is a function of how much power you can put through your antenna. So, this antenna might not be as powerful as that others, so therefore it’s throughput is lower. Its ability to punch through clouds and bad weather is lower. But ultimately, we don’t have any always on connections. So, for a satellite that is in low Earth orbit, you can look at it as it’s casting a shadow over the earth, but it’s casting a shadow over a small portion of the earth…

Rick Ward: So, while, it’s shadow might be a couple of hundred kilometers across. So, as it passes over a ground station, at this point, it has connectivity without ground station for 200 kilometers. And really it might be 160 kilometers with fuzziness and not really good connectivity on either end of that. And then it has no connectivity until it passes over the next ground station, which might be a thousand kilometers away. And some of this depends on how many ground stations you subscribe to, cause you can either build your own or you can pay to use somebody else’s. So there’re various services from the ground station. It has to go to a data center before it can be processed, which is probably a fiber optic link, which AWS and Microsoft have both started putting antennas on top of their data centers…

Rick Ward: So, it reduces the amount of distance. So, instead of having a 50 kilometer fiber run, you have to go through, well, now it’s just a hundred meters. So, there’re various things that people have done to address this problem. But ultimately it comes down to, you have intermittent connectivity of variable throughput for each of those windows of connectivity. Like for instance, there’s relatively few ground stations over the ocean. There’s definitely some on islands and things like that, but also over the ocean, you’re susceptible to storms…

Rick Ward: So, if there’s bad weather over your ground site, you’re probably not getting data through. Optical is the next thing that’s coming. That’s going to have super fast, super high density. So, you’re going to be able to move a lot of data for each burst. But at the same time, it is more susceptible to weather. So, you’ve got a series of trade offs. Starlink can potentially address a lot of that. But it’s not going to be an optimal solution. It’ll be better than what we have right now, but it won’t be like, well everything’s fine. And you have always on connectivity, just like I do with you standing in the same room with me right now. It’s not going to get to that point. And that’s where our value is.

Raymond Hawkins: Rick, can I say back what I think you said, I want to make sure I understand it. So, I’ve got my satellite, that’s spinning around there in low Earth orbit. It’s casting. I like your phrase, a shadow on the earth, right? For lack of a better term. It gets coverage over that station in a certain window while it’s passing around. And as soon as I get out of that window, I got to wait till I get the next one. So, I could get that when it comes to going across the United States, what happens when I get to other continents? Do you have services that are global? Do you have services where there’s stuff in multiple countries or do you just have to have different agreements with different countries? And then I love the point you also made. What do you do about, I mean, 70% of the earth is covered in water. I got to believe we got some long stretches where we’re not getting information.

Rick Ward: All of that’s true. So, for some reason, a lot of the Nordic countries seem to have a lot of ground station capabilities. And once you build one ground station, it’s just a matter of a real estate deal and getting some services done to build a second ground station. So, there might be a company that I don’t want to name any particular one because there’s a bunch of different companies and I don’t want to play favorites at this point. So, you make a contract with ground station, Acme ground stations. And they own 10 ground stations scattered around the world. They own one in Morocco. They own one in somewhere in Andes. They own one in Colorado. They have one in Helsinki, somewhere out in the [inaudible 00:21:01]. And basically the geography for a ground station is high and dry…

Rick Ward: That’s your best ground station. If it’s high altitude, less atmosphere between it and space and dry with relatively few storms coming, because every time there’s a storm, you’re not getting connectivity. And if you’re not getting connectivity, you’re not getting paid. So, that’s, the description of your optimal ground station. And that’s part of the reason that a lot of those Nordic countries got into that game because it lets them communicate with a lot of satellites right in their own backyard. So, that’s, kind of the driver’s on that. Yes. You do have to have nation specific agreements for your ground side communications. But these companies are a one stop shopping. So, they handle all that with their host countries.

Raymond Hawkins: So, Rick, in your business model, you’re deploying the satellites and the tech for lack of a better term, the micro data centers. I’m not even sure if that’s the term you would use it. But for that compute function in space, who are your customers, who’s coming and getting, needing that compute power up there. Who’s coming in getting a service from you? That’s the easiest way I guess I could say. I certainly get the earth observation, right? Shipping channels and weather patterns. I get earth observation stuff. What are other business cases for needing that computational capability in low Earth orbit?

Rick Ward: So a year ago, I would’ve hesitated to talk about a lot of this. But now I mentioned that there’s kind of been a sea change in the space industry, where they’re feeling more optimism than what was previously there. Now I am more comfortable saying, space stations and research stations are definitely going to be things where we play a heavy role. We’re seeing more interest and more development for in space manufacturing, in space research, in space various sorts of experiments. And all of that stuff is going to be data intensive. So, if you have, for instance, a space station, what does your space station do? Well, there’s a lot of economic activity that you can undertake there and that’s going to be stuff like one of my favorites ones to talk about is crystallography. The study of how crystals form. And that happens completely different in microgravity…

Rick Ward: It also happens differently in hard vacuum. So, it also touches a lot of different industries. Crystallography governs metallurgy. So, how different metals behave and how they solidify in space from a molten state. What sort of crystal formations occur. Even tempering can produce a different result are the same alloy. An alloy that already exists, you can get a different hardness of steel for tempering it in space rather than tempering it on the surface. So, you have metallurgy, you have optics where you can generate crystals that have higher purity or introduce the exact impurities you want at exactly the spot and phase that you want to introduce them in. You can do ceramics, where you can, you can possibly get one big ceramic casting that is essentially one crystal. A mono crystal line structure, which is not terribly easy to do here on earth. And I understand most of the processes that do that have a high reject rate. So, there’s, a lot of different things that you can do in space.

Raymond Hawkins: Can I take those three? So, metallurgy, crystals and ceramics. Are those all for things that you would use in space? Because I can’t see the economic viability of doing that creation in space and then shipping it back down to earth. Are those all applications where the finished product can be used on some space deployed solution?

Rick Ward: Yes. And yes. So, a lot of that’s going to be made in space for use in space. But, it’s not as hard as we think to get stuff down. The trick is to get it down safely.

Raymond Hawkins: Okay.

Rick Ward: So, and also by having something that is, that is dense and robust, it can handle a little bit of little bit of stuff. You, you can get that down relatively safely. For instance, I would, I would say that somewhere on the Australian Outback or, or the American Southwest would be attractive places for, for bringing down large dense payloads where you have some sort of an error breaking system followed by some sort of a parachute, and then it lands here on earth, on the surface at say, 30 miles an hour. Or you could get it down to three to five miles an hour, if you wanted to. It’s just a matter of how expensive you want to be to get there. And also I would say that should Starship come online, then bringing it down on board of rocket might be very feasible.

Raymond Hawkins: All right. Fascinating stuff. As I think about manufacturing stuff up there, I guess it holds. Getting stuff out of orbit is hard getting stuff back in, not nearly as hard or nearly as expensive.

Rick Ward: And I would go back to the historical analogy where there was a point where European nobility were the only people who had stuff from the colonies, from all the way across the Atlantic or from China. And then as you normalize travel, now there isn’t a single person on this planet, who doesn’t have a thousand things they own that are originated 5,000 miles or farther from their home.

Raymond Hawkins: Right. It’s changed the way commerce happens here has changed everyone’s lives and continues to change it. And what I hear you saying is, “Hey, let’s think in that same context for what it’s like in this early phase of going to space”.

Rick Ward: That normalization. The trivialization even.

Raymond Hawkins: All right, Rick, I’m going to get you to on another path if you’re willing. So, explain to us what constellations are. I’ve heard that term and want, see if I can get to understand a collection of satellites. What’s going on there?

Rick Ward: I don’t know of a specific threshold for what constitutes a constellation versus not a constellation. I would say something where you have a collection of satellites that are not in the same orbit. They are not flying in formation, but they each have a similar orbit that are separated in time. So, that different satellite go over the same location multiple times per day, and offer whatever the services they’re offering to customers on the ground, where you’re receiving the same service from several different satellites. And you have relatively continuous service because they have that staggered orbit…

Rick Ward: And the one that everybody’s thinking about right now is the star lake formation that is supposed to be tens of thousands of satellites. So, that every person who’s not already well served by dense urban wire based internet or optical based internet, has continuous connectivity. So, that if you’re in the middle of the Mojave desert or farmland out in Georgia or on a boat in the South Pacific, you can have a [inaudible 00:29:28] conversation with somebody including video, anytime you want. That’s the gist of constellations and there’re different purposes.

Raymond Hawkins: If the coverage gets sufficient from a star link that they have clear line of sight all the time that’s ultimately sort of the vision, right? We’ve got this coverage of the planet all the time of these satellites constantly orbiting in a, like you said, not in formation, but in defined orbital routes, so that we can get those shadows as you said producing communications abilities or planet wide.

Rick Ward: And as an example of an earlier constellation, you had things like direct TV and the satellite internet providers, or satellite TV providers from the eighties. In those scenarios, you have their constellations, maybe a half dozen, maybe up to a dozen satellites. And they provide global continuous communications. That’s one way communications in many of those instances. But because they’re in geostationary orbit, the shadow cast by one satellite is effectively an entire hemisphere of the earth. Or depending on the altitude.

Raymond Hawkins: So, they’re further up.

Rick Ward: They’re much farther away. Now, the reason Starlink exists at the orbit they’ve selected is time. So, if you have something, if I’m sending you a TV signal, that’s not an interactive thing. It’s not going to change after this program comes the next program. And that’s something where time lag latency is not an issue. If I’m gaming, well, I want low latency. So, having a shorter distance is highly appealing. And having a round trip pathway of a thousand kilometers, 800 kilometers is not going to work well for me. So, that’s, why Starlink is intended to operate at such a low orbit. And also, they’re actually competing with fiber optics, which the speed of light through fiber is about half what it is through vacuum. So, that’s, part of the attraction for that.

Raymond Hawkins: That makes sense. All right. Last question. Can you help me and the folks that listen to us, understand when I think of satellites, I think of really big things, but don’t they span the scale of size and functionality. So, will you give us a little bit of understanding of how big are we talking about? What things your satellites, how big are they and talk me through what goes, where and how big it is.

Rick Ward: So, our initial mission that we’re looking at launching is about the size of a college dorm mini fridge. So, around 200 kilos, around that size. And it’s going to have essentially like a blade architecture with [inaudible 00:32:34] enterprise, micro data server stuff. It’s probably going to have like eight to 16 blades, is our current thought. And due to the size and the way that’s packaged, we’re planning on having about half of them on at any given time. And the other half basically turned off so that they can be a cold back up. And by having them turned off, they’re going to be less susceptible to radiation events. So, the intent is to have enough redundancy that we can offer an entire mission life cycle and offer you the service for the whole time that you’ve paid for it…

Rick Ward: Another part of that is providing enough power for that computation is kind of expensive in terms of mass and mass and size and paying for launch. But having the compute there un-powered is not quite as expensive. So, it drives says that it’s good to have redundancy in this scenario. And also you need it anyway. So, beyond there, we’re looking at something also about the size of a residential fridge. Fridge with, with ice box on top and all that. It probably won’t give you ice cubes, but it’ll be around about that size. And from there, we can go larger. We’re also looking at a small one, that’s basically two blades. And that’s going to be roundabout the size of a briefcase. And that is something intended to integrate into your satellite and offer you some degree of edge compute on your satellite. And the reason we’re looking at two blades is to have one on and one off.

Raymond Hawkins: The redundancy. Sure. Fascinating stuff. Well, as I think about my personal experience being with my dad in the space station, I think of this big thing, but the reality is you could have tiny satellites doing very specific missions deployed in a constellation, right. Not unheard of thing. You’re talking about two blades. That’s a pretty small thing. Now, would those get deployed a bunch in one launch?

Rick Ward: So, smallest one is intended to be what we’re calling a Bolton solution where it’s just the compute that integrates into your satellite platform.

Raymond Hawkins: Okay. So, it would go up with the platform that it was bolted onto when it goes.

Rick Ward: Yes.

Raymond Hawkins: I got it. Well, Rick, man, I appreciate you jumping been on with us and talking about what’s going on in space and the data in space and helping us understand it even better. The latency thing was super helpful. I get it right. Right. If I’m programming TV, I can stream it down whatever I want. I can start it five minutes early. And as long as it’s coming, one direction. It’s that bidirectional latency, conversations and gaming are great examples of why I need to be closer, because so I can get the latency low enough that I can still have an experience that’s usable. So good story.

Rick Ward: Good thing. And that’s also the reason that we’re looking at having a similar-ish orbit to what Starlink is going to have. Obviously, you can’t have this two different things in the same orbit, but that’s part of the reason driving the most popular orbit in the past five years has been LEO. And that is because everybody is concerned about reducing latency. So, it’s a matter of how low can you go and still have a reasonably stable orbit that’s going to last for long enough to get your job done.

Raymond Hawkins: Right. Not deteriorate. Very cool stuff. Right. Rick, as always enjoyed talking to you.

Rick Ward: Likewise.

Raymond Hawkins: Fellow Marine, fellow southerner and fellow guy in the data business. I appreciate it. Thank you so much, man. Thank you.