Earth & Beyond: How Alpha's SAR Processing Tech Will Aid Future Interplanetary Missions
As a part of a newly announced $1.7-million contract from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Space Alpha Insights (Alpha) will develop patented SAR satellite tech — high-speed onboard processing — for low Earth orbit, and beyond.
From maritime monitoring to the Moon, and Mars.
Mars has captivated the collective human psyche since Galileo first spotted the Red Planet in the night sky in 1610. In the scientific realm, that ongoing fascination has recently spurred high-profile exploratory missions like NASA's Perseverance rover, the Artemis project, and SpaceX's crewed Mars mission (which is fuelling a new era of reusable rockets, along with the small-sat boom).
In Canada, that fascination with Mars has led to the CSA's renewed commitment to advancing its exploration of the moon, Mars, and other interplanetary missions. Canada has a successful history of providing critical scientific support to space missions, including advancements in the areas of robotics, medical sciences, cloud computing, and SAR satellite technology — all considered to be critical technologies for space exploration.
Announced on July 14, Alpha's patented high-speed, onboard processing technology is being developed to support such interplanetary exploration, from Earth missions to the Moon, and Mars. The aim, in part, is to study the harsh environment of Mars in preparation for crewed exploration.
“We have a long, successful track record with SAR technology in Canada and we're thrilled to help deliver advanced SAR insights for critical missions here on Earth and as far away as Mars. It's a fantastic opportunity for our team and indicative of the importance of our mission to push SAR tech to the next level." — Scott Larson, CEO, Alpha.
A closer look at Alpha's high-speed, onboard processing.
High-speed onboard processing, simply put, means that SAR data is processed on the satellite itself and in near real-time. Traditional SAR missions downlink enormous amounts of raw SAR data to ground stations, processed by software on Earth-bound servers. It's a time-consuming, inefficient process that slows project timelines and reduces the value of information.
In contrast, the advantages of high-speed onboard processing are manifold:
Reduced Data Volumes: Raw data takes up much more space than processed data and increases downlink bandwidth requirements. By processing data on the spacecraft, bandwidth requirements for downlinks are reduced.
Quicker Insight: By reducing the amount of time between data capture, analysis, and resulting insight, imagery and information can be directly downlinked to users. Those downlinks of pre-processed, user-ready data can occur directly to users in the field for immediate use.
Efficient Data Management: Data is processed and packaged in space, which reduces resources required for data delivery and storage. In some cases, data delivery latency from space to ground can be reduced to as little as five seconds. As a result, global, real-time information transfer over low-Earth-orbit communications constellations becomes economically viable.
Dual Bands & Combined Utility: Simultaneous dual-band data capture — X-band for high-resolution data and L-band to penetrate deep into biomass — the result is superior datasets that can be harnessed faster.
Onboard Intelligence: With advanced onboard AI and machine learning algorithms, data can be further processed onboard the satellite, thereby increasing the value of information. Examples include ship detection and classification, iceberg differentiation, change detection, etc.
How onboard processing will be used:
Example - Maritime Monitoring: In low-Earth orbit, onboard processing can improve maritime monitoring by enabling immediate high-res imaging and ship detection, including location, speed, and direction in real-time. With onboard AI, only data from vessels of concern is downlinked, which minimizes downlink costs.
Example - Pipeline Monitoring: Imagery can be analyzed in orbit, which detects potential oil leaks, and only relevant data is downlinked.
For missions beyond Earth, high-speed onboarding processing can increase the utility of SAR data derived from below a planet's crust. Examples include detection of subterranean water or ice, along with the creation of digital elevation models, with extremely high precision, regardless of atmospheric and light conditions.