By Tara Swords
In July of 1955, the United States announced that it would launch a satellite into space. Four days later, the Soviet Union announced that it, too, would get a satellite into space “in the near future.” Thus was born the Space Race, a decades-long competition for technological superiority with major national security and geopolitical implications.
Today, there’s a new kind of space race brewing. This time, the original, geopolitical jockeying is mixed in with a watershed moment in the commercial development of space. What is happening now is reminiscent of the contest for ecommerce dominance of the late 1990s.
Pennsylvania-based Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI), began as a part of the new space race. Founded in 1989, AGI makes software that helps companies design, operate, and analyze objects in space and terrestrial environments by understanding their exact positions in space and time.
For the first 25 years, AGI’s founders ran a successful company focused on building the world’s best digital mission modeling software. But in fall 2013, they realized that the space industry was facing an inflection point and needed a new kind of solution.
Today, there are about 1,500 active satellites orbiting Earth amidst hundreds of thousands of pieces of man-made and natural debris. “Our military space leaders say space is congested, contested, and competitive,” says Paul Graziani, CEO and Cofounder of AGI. “In low Earth orbit, occasionally objects hit each other, and this causes a lot of debris. The International Space Station is there, too, and when you add humans to the mix, the consequences become much greater.”
The US Chamber of Commerce projects that the commercial space industry will grow to at least US$1.5 trillion by 2040. This extraordinary growth suggests there will soon be a lot more to keep track of, and keeping track of everything is essential if everyone is going to operate safely in space. Graziani realized that space operators won’t have enough precise, actionable data to avoid costly collisions—and AGI could provide that data. For that, he turned to the database software the company had trusted all along: Oracle.
AGI already used Oracle Database to track and analyze the position of tens of thousands of objects in space; that’s part of the software the company’s customers utilized for years.
“Space operators track their own satellites, so they know exactly where they are,” says Lisa Hoover, development database manager at AGI. “The problem is that they don’t know where they are in relation to everything else around them.”
Space operators track their own satellites, so they know exactly where they are. The problem is that they don’t know where they are in relation to everything else around them.”—Lisa Hoover, Development Database Manager, AGI
As space gets increasingly crowded, that lack of awareness becomes a bigger problem. Hoover cites potential plans by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (otherwise known as SpaceX) to launch a constellation of 12,000 satellites to support an affordable wireless internet. Another player, OneWeb, has plans to launch a constellation of 600 satellites that will provide the first large-scale internet network in low Earth orbit. “If you’re having all these satellites zipping around at more than 16,000 miles per hour, the chance of a collision is going to get greater and greater,” Hoover says.
Projected size of the commercial space industry by 2040
Graziani’s solution to Earth’s increasingly crowded space marketplace is to deliver the world’s most accurate Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data. AGI’s Commercial Space Operations Center (ComSpOC) pulls together satellite tracking data from a global network of commercial sensors. ComSpOC uses this data to provide space object characterization and mission assurance services. Customers use this analysis to monitor threats and ensure the safety of their space assets.
When AGI began evaluating what database software it would use in ComSpOC, there was little competition.
“There are hundreds of databases on the market, but Oracle offers features that other companies don’t,” Hoover says. “An Oracle database can handle large volumes of data, security, performance, and tuning—even speed and support. When you look at who else is out there, nobody can compete right now.”
AGI launched the first commercial SSA data service just months after Graziani and his team conceived of the idea. In January 2014, ComSpOC went live, processing data from commercial radio frequency, radar, and optical sensors around the world.
The sensors take observations every few seconds and transmit them back to ComSpOC, which generates a tremendous amount of data. At the center of the application that runs ComSpOC is Oracle Database 18c, which offers multitenant capability that makes it easier to get new customers deployed quickly. Before multi-tenancy, AGI would have to go to a customer site with scripts, create the database, and then load the data one by one to get the database running. Hoover says that process was always a little error-prone, especially when customers wanted to merge in their own data. “Oracle’s multitenant technology has been a real time-saver for us, because we can now build databases in a matter of seconds.”
Oracle Database is where ComSpOC processes, stores, and analyzes its massive amount of data. Hoover says Oracle Database is the only solution that could enable ComSpOC analysts to crunch millions of bits of data and make fast decisions about a satellite’s location.
When a tracked satellite is coming close to another object, ComSpOC analysts must calculate how soon the objects will be too close for comfort and then determine when the customer needs to perform a maneuver to avoid a collision. Accuracy is key, because operators don’t like to move satellites. Maneuvers use fuel, and satellites are launched with a limited amount of fuel onboard. ComSpOC analysts must be able to trust their data so they can make the right call each time.
Number of space objects that AGI’s ComSpOC processes
“Oracle has to process all of that data, and it’s very complex math,” Graziani says. “In fact, it is rocket science.”
Every week, AGI’s sensors are pulling millions of observations into ComSpOC to track objects in space. These objects can be as large as a bus or so small that they’re measured in centimeters. All this data flows into Oracle Database 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most important, the system is built to scale.
“We’ve tested it up to 300,000 objects, and scalability isn’t an issue for Oracle,” Hoover says.
Oracle has to process all of that data, and it’s very complex math. In fact, it is rocket science.”—Paul Graziani, CEO and Cofounder, AGI
Some of the objects that ComSpOC tracks are intentionally unpredictable, because they are launched by governments or potentially nefarious actors whose operations and intentions are unclear. For example, Luch, a Russian satellite launched in 2014, frequently moves close to communications satellites without any disclosure of intent by its operators. Similar mystery surrounds a Chinese satellite launched on Christmas Eve 2018. This satellite initially appeared to dispose of its motor, as satellites usually do. But this discarded object turned out to be something else. Instead of drifting as a dead piece of space debris would, it suddenly began to maneuver. ComSpOC, it seemed, was tracking an incognito operational spacecraft.
Experts have long predicted that the contest for space dominance could have terrestrial implications for global conflicts—especially because nations such as the United States rely on satellites for critical military capabilities.
One thing is clear: With Oracle’s partnership, AGI will be ready to handle whatever comes.
“Oracle helped us develop a roadmap that said, ‘Here’s how many customers we need in phase 1, here’s what we can do next, and here’s where we can keep adding on,’” Hoover says. “So we didn’t have to keep rebuilding our system as we grew—we could keep progressing. Oracle laid out a long-term strategy for us based on the goals of the company, and you can’t put a value on that.”
Photography by Paul S. Howell