New Houston-made satellites to mimic versatility of the chameleon in space – Houston Chronicle

Posted: June 30, 2020 at 1:47 pm

A new fleet of satellites is being built in Houston to mimic the color-changing chameleon.

Like the versatile reptile, the satellites could be quickly updated and reconfigured while in orbit. Lets say a volcano erupts and there isnt an imaging satellite nearby. This planned Chameleon Constellation of 24 to 36 satellites could switch within minutes from running machine learning models on data collected in space to taking pictures of the disaster and aiding first responders.

Or perhaps a malicious hacker gets into the satellites software and renders it useless. An update to fix the security weakness could be quickly pushed out.

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Such adaptability is not typical of satellites, landing Austin-based Hypergiant Industries and its Houston space division a contract with the U.S. Air Force, the company announced Tuesday.

Were at this transition point, said Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Hypergiant, where the space industry that has been predominantly a hardware industry is moving and advancing to one thats innovating through software.

Lamm and John Fremont founded Hypergiant in 2018 to help bring artificial intelligence and machine learning to hardware-intensive industries such as aerospace, defense and energy. Last year it acquired Houston-based Satellite & Extraterrestrial Operations & Procedures, a company that deployed satellites, to form the Hypergiant Galactic Systems division.

This division is tackling issues that range from outer-space internet (so colonists on Mars wouldnt have to wait for long stretches of time, potentially months, to see the results of a Google search) to more user-friendly mission control software to this new Chameleon Constellation of satellites.

The latter is being funded by the Air Forces Small Business Innovation Research grants.

We need to be able to put assets in space as quickly as possible and then continuously improve them to maintain superiority, Air Force Maj. Rob Slaughter, director of the Department of Defenses Platform One, said in a news release. In order for the U.S. to remain competitive and protect the systems that run the lives of everyday Americans, we created a solution that allows for continuous software delivery in space. The only difference between a national security system and space junk is the software that operates it.

Hypergiant is building its software on top of the Platform One software, which ensures Hypergiant will meet Air Force and Department of Defense security requirements. Its first satellite, roughly the size of two bread loaves, is set to launch in 2021 on Northrop Grummans Cygnus spacecraft used to carry supplies to the International Space Station.

After the spacecraft delivers its supplies, the satellite will be attached to the outside of the Cygnus vehicle. Cygnus will depart the station, travel some 62 miles above the station and then deploy the satellite.

This first satellite will be used to prove that Hypergiants software can be frequently updated (and recalled, if necessary). Thats how it works on Earth - software updates are pushed out regularly and with small, iterative changes for iPhones, work computers, etc.

But Lamm said current satellite software is only updated once or twice a year.

Instead of having existing space assets that are constantly almost out of date with their software, Lamm said, we can update those assets in real time.

Then as more satellites get launched into space, they will connect to one another and combine their computing capabilities to enable more powerful machine learning. This can allow satellites to make their own decisions.

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Currently, if a satellite takes a picture of something it doesnt recognize, it will have to send the data down to people on Earth. Those people analyze it and then send a new signal to the satellite telling it what to do next. With machine learning, the satellites could autonomously determine what the mystery object might be and if they should take more pictures to investigate further.

Ultimately, the goal is for these satellites to change tasks as theyre orbiting the planet. Future versions of the satellite could be equipped with antennae to provide emergency communications in the case of a network outage, cameras for taking pictures of the Earth and other sensors. By sending up new software code, these tasks can be swapped to meet various Air Force needs.

Thats why we named it Chameleon Constellation, Lamm said. Now your constellation has changed.

andrea.leinfelder@chron.com

twitter.com/a_leinfelder

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New Houston-made satellites to mimic versatility of the chameleon in space - Houston Chronicle

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