The ambitious goal of Elon Musk’s Starlink and other satellite internet projects is to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet worldwide. But there are still big questions to answer, including how to build a resilient and secure network in space.
To examine such questions, Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) Virginia Tech researchers have teamed up with the University of Surrey in the UK to build the world’s first hardware-in-the-loop testbed that emulates the changing connectivity of a mega constellation of satellites in large scale. The researchers presented the test bed at an intercontinental workshop on July 12 and 13.
“We wanted to establish a shared community vision and think about what would be possible and what would be most useful in a space-based network infrastructure,” said Jonathan Black, ICC researcher and professor of aerospace engineering.
In addition to bringing together researchers and funding agencies from both sides of the Atlantic, the interdisciplinary workshop involved members of the satellite and aerospace community as well as the computer networking and communication communities, including including researchers from [email protected] in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Bradley and the Space Science and Engineering Research Center ([email protected]).
Workshop speakers included representatives from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the National Science Foundation, as well as Ella Atkins, Fred D. Durham Chair and incoming department head for the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
“In order to fix, upgrade and refuel in space, we need to build for efficiency and disruption,” said Atkins, who called the workshop from his rural home via Starlink. “By anchoring communications and networks in long-term space robotics, our researchers are building the future of space engineering.”
According to Atkins and Black, the future of space engineering requires effective communication – and the next step is to connect satellite networks.
Get out of spatial silos
On the ground, networked Internet service providers are interconnected. A Verizon network user can talk with someone on an AT&T network, for example. Communication bounces between networks.
In space, however, communications are siloed. The mega constellations of satellites that make up different space networks do not talk to each other – not between orbits, not between networks, not between individual satellites.
“We want all networks to communicate securely and efficiently,” said Black, who is also director of the aerospace and ocean systems division of the National Security Institute and co-director of the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research. “Both the workshop and the testbed are directly related to achieving this goal: to interconnect the various space networks into constellations and pivot to 5g/NextG wireless communication capabilities.”
Test interconnectivity, build resilience
With support from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, the Virginia Tech team and partners researched new high-bandwidth spatial networks. The test bed they’ve been developing over the past year will simulate mega internet constellations, including satellites, ground stations, connected devices such as phones, and the links between them.
“We have on the order of thousands of spacecraft simulated as nodes,” said Samantha Parry Kenyon, [email protected] research associate and co-principal investigator of the CCI project. “We can physically communicate with the hardware nodes and embed them directly into the simulation’s virtual satellite nodes.”
Running the testbed through different scenarios, the team examines what to do when operations are disrupted by something like a space event or security breach and how an adjacent satellite network could compensate for a compromised system. .
Resilience is about how a system reacts to unexpected changes, Black explained. “The network must be able to continue to function even when it is degraded.”
With help from Virginia Tech Integrated Center for Security Education and Research, the team plans to open the testbed reference architecture and allow others Commonwealth Cyber Initiative institutions, researchers, educators and students to examine and optimize pathways to inter-constellation connectivity.
With Starlink’s ability to model constellations at scale, researchers will be able to design resilient, secure, and interconnected networks in both hardware and software.