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With Azure Orbital, Microsoft Expands Role of Partners in Space Efforts

A new Microsoft groundstation-as-a-service offering that lets users communicate with satellites using Microsoft's cloud resources is now in public preview.

Azure Orbital groundstations are located near or at Microsoft Azure datacenter locations. According to Apoorva Nori of Microsoft Space in this Microsoft Mechanics video, organizations can use them to connect with a satellite (called "contact" time) and then download and process data.

"And of course, from there, they can take advantage of Azure as hyperscale compute and analytical services to rapidly gather insights and also integrate with our productivity stack including Microsoft 365 and Teams," Nori added.

Microsoft currently has two Azure Orbital groundstations, one located at its Quincy, Wash., datacenter, plus another in Sweden, with more to come, according to Nori. Microsoft relies on its partners to extend that network.

"In fact, today we have northern hemisphere and super-southern hemisphere coverage," Nori said. "And that's set to increase significantly with both Microsoft and partner efforts."

Microsoft's groundstation partners, described back in April, included Amergint, Kratos, KSAT, Kubos, Viasat and US Electrodynamics Inc.

New Groundstation Partner Efforts
Microsoft has a new Azure Orbital partner, satellite platform provider ST Engineering iDirect. Its satellite communications solutions are getting supported in Microsoft Azure datacenters via "virtualized modems" or "software modems." These modems can be tapped by Azure Orbital's satellite operator customers, the announcement indicated.

Microsoft more generally described virtualization in Azure Orbital as broadening options for customers and adding the ability to expand operations.

"Azure Orbital takes advantage of virtualization, which moves functionality from proprietary hardware into software that can be deployed on general-purpose hardware to deliver a more scalable and cost-efficient solution for customers," the announcement indicated.

Additionally, Microsoft is working to fill holes in space solutions standards by serving as a founding member of the Digital IF Interoperability (DIFI) consortium, including work on a standard for "streaming data between digitizers and virtualized modems."

The announcement also described a KSATlite groundstation partnership, enabling organizations to "use Azure Orbital APIs or the Azure Portal to communicate with their satellites using Microsoft and KSAT antennas."

This KSAT partnership will expand "early next year with support for ground station partners ViaSat and USEI," the announcement added.

KSAT's Norway facility alone provides more than 100 antennas worldwide in both hemispheres, Nori indicated.

Other Partnership Efforts
Microsoft established a new partnership with Airbus, using the aerospace company's "satellite imagery and elevation data" in Microsoft Azure Maps. Specifically, Microsoft is using Airbus' "SPOT 1.5m, Pléiades 50cm, and Pléiades Neo 30cm resolution satellite imagery and WorldDEM4Ortho elevation data."

Various uses for Airbus satellite imagery were proposed by Microsoft in this announcement, such as tracking supply chains, enabling first responders and monitoring environmental indicators. Microsoft noted that its Azure Cognitive Services Custom Vision solution can be used to make machine learning models using the Airbus images. That scenario is shown off in the Microsoft Mechanics video, where global monitoring of massive cargo ships is demonstrated.

Other Microsoft partner efforts announced included:

  • Azure support for Blackshark.ai's "advanced geospatial intelligence and 3D synthetic environments," creating a "digital twin" image of planet Earth.
  • Azure support for Esri's ArcGIS Image solution, used for "geospatial data management and analytics." 
  • Azure support for Orbital Insight's GO platform for monitoring supply chains and detecting military movements.

Azure Orbital was at the private preview stage back in April, when Microsoft showcased adding a radome-like structure used for the service at its Quincy, Wash., datacenter. These groundstations are part of Azure Space, Microsoft's general effort to support low- and middle-earth-orbit satellites, announced by CEO Satya Nadella at Microsoft's 2020 Ignite event. Another Azure Space offering is the Azure Modular Datacenter, which lets organizations set up compute and storage facilities in remote locations.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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