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Lockheed Martin Accelerates Transition to Software-Defined Space

By Jeffrey Hill | March 21, 2019
Lockheed Martin's nanosatellite bus, the LM 50, will host the first SmartSat-enabled missions set for delivery this year. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin’s nanosatellite bus, the LM 50, will host the first SmartSat-enabled missions set for delivery this year.

Aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin will integrate its new software-defined satellite architecture, SmartSat, on 10 of its nanosatellite missions this year, starting with Linus and Pony Express. The new software-defined capability is designed to allow satellites to change their missions in orbit, letting users “add capability and assign new missions with a software push, just like adding an app on a smartphone,” the company said in its March 21 announcement.

The Linus project will deliver two 12U cubesats based on the Lockheed Martin LM 50 nanosatellite bus design that will test and validate SmartSat capabilities as well as 3D-printed spacecraft components.

The Pony Express mission aims to send several 6U satellites destined for a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The group of small satellites will test Radio Frequency (RF)-enabled swarming formations and space-to-space networking. Pony Express 1, designed over the course of nine months, is a pathfinder for a software-defined payload that will test cloud computing infrastructure. The company has yet to announce a set launch date schedule for the programs.

SmartSat uses a high-power, radiation-hardened computer developed by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC), which is co-funded by Lockheed Martin. The technology takes advantage of multi-core processing and uses a hypervisor to “containerize” virtual machines — allowing a single computer to operate multiple servers virtually,  maximizing memory. The aim of the design is to enable satellites to process more data in-orbit and prioritize which data gets beamed down back to Earth.

Lockheed Martin Space Executive Vice President (VP) Rick Ambrose said that his company was self-funding the LM 50 missions to demonstrate a number of plug-and-play capabilities across its entire fleet, ranging from its LM 50 nanosatellite bus to its flagship LM 2100. “And the same technology not only plugs into ground stations, improving space-ground integration, it will one day connect directly with planes, ships and ground vehicles, connecting front-line users to the power of space like never before,” said Ambrose.

He added that Lockheed designed SmartSat with cyber security in mind, as satellites equipped with the new capability could potentially reset themselves faster and diagnose security issues with greater precision. “[SmartSat] satellites can also better detect and defend against cyber threats autonomously, and on-board cyber defenses can be updated regularly to address new threats.”

In May, Ambrose will speak on a software-defined panel at SATELLITE 2019, titled “Software-Defined Satellites for a Software-Defined Industry.” The panel, which will discuss initiatives and technologies that allow operators to code for a platform and to design and run virtual machines on a satellite, will also feature Lockheed Martin’s largest aerospace competitors — Airbus, Northrop Grumman, and Thales Alenia Space.