Space startup Aalyria demonstrates satellite mesh network

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WASHINGTON — Aalyria, a startup spun off from Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced Feb. 12 it successfully demonstrated its software platform to manage a mesh network of communications satellites.

The Dec. 7 demonstration at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., was funded by the Defense Innovation Unit as part of a larger effort to create a multi-layered satellite architecture of different vendors and orbits. 

Aalyria, based in Livermore, California, is working under an $8.7 million contract from DIU to implement its Spacetime software in support of a hybrid space architecture. 

The Defense Innovation Unit, or DIU, is a Pentagon agency that works with the private sector and identifies commercial technologies that can fill military needs. It started the hybrid network project in 2022 to help fill a military demand for global communications regardless of terrestrial infrastructure limitations or disruptions.

“This demonstration validated Aalyria’s capability to enable a hybrid network in space, connecting satellites across different orbits and providers,” said Chris Taylor, Aalyria’s founder and chief executive officer. 

The military needs a dynamic network of multiple constellations that is not susceptible to single points of failure and offers redundancy against threats, Taylor told SpaceNews. The combination of satellites in low, medium and much higher geostationary orbits, he noted, provides wider coverage and lower latency, crucial for time-sensitive intelligence and defense operations.

The demonstration at NRL, Taylor said, was attended by more than 150 officials from U.S. government and defense agencies, and from the European Space Agency.  The mesh network included about 630 satellites from three commercial satellite operators: OneWeb, Viasat and Intelsat. They used terminals from OneWeb, Kymeta, Viasat and Comtech. Fixed and mobile ground terminals were placed in four sites in two continents. “The network integrity was verified in real time by NRL throughout the demonstration,” said Taylor.

Automating network operations

Although its technology came from Google, Aalyria is an independent company with two main products. One is the Spacetime software platform for network orchestration and routing. The other is a laser communications terminal to transmit data from space through the atmosphere to the ground.

Spacetime automates the scheduling and tasking of satellites, ground stations and user terminals. But it doesn’t magically solve interoperability problems, such as when one company’s modems on the ground can’t talk to other companies’ satellites, or when satellites’ optical links aren’t interoperable with those of other satellites. 

“The software is aware of that, and doesn’t try to ask things to link up with others that aren’t compatible,” Taylor explained. 

In the DIU hybrid space demonstration, Spacetime simulated the Starlink network but SpaceX’s satellites could not be actually plugged into the network because the company does not disclose where the payloads are pointing their antennas.

Military satellites like the Wideband Global Satcom or the Mobile User Objective System were not in the hybrid network demo, Taylor said, as the company was only given 60 days to put it together, and that was not enough time to secure access to MUOS and WGS.

Steve “Bucky” Butow, director of the space portfolio at DIU, was an early proponent of the hybrid space architecture project. Speaking Feb. 7 at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, he said DIU views the project as an important government investment in space infrastructure that could help facilitate and promote commercial activity, much like the terrestrial internet did 30 years ago.  

 Besides Aalyria, other companies that won contracts for the DIU program include Amazon Web Services, Kuiper Government Solutions, Microsoft Azure Space, SpiderOak Mission Systems, Anduril, Atlas Space Operations and Enveil.

“We are partnering with the U.S. Space Force, the Air Force Research Lab and others on the creation of a hybrid space architecture,” Butow said. “The smart thing for the government to do is to make that investment and create the infrastructure that allows companies to develop software services and integrate things across the architecture.”

“We need a hybrid architecture for national security, for resiliency, for true multi-path, low latency communications, and maybe eventually we can cut the ground layer out completely,” he said. 

Butow explained that DIU is trying to “stimulate the architecture and get all the components we need ready to be able to provide a new service.”

How Spacetime started

Brian Barritt, Aalyria’s chief technology officer, previously worked at Google where he helped develop Spacetime under Project Loon, an effort to beam internet service globally using high-altitude balloons. The parent company Alphabet shut down the project in 2021, creating an opportunity to spin out the technology that Aalyria acquired.

Spacetime was built by a large group of engineers at Google, Barritt recalled. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler was working there at the time and participated in the development of Spacetime.

“It was designed to deal with a lot of the complexities of operating mesh networks of highly directional steerable beams,” Barritt said. “We decided to see if we could build one to support space, air and ground assets.”

Network automation software like Spacetime benefits from the adoption of common standards across the industry, he added. The U.S. government, Barritt added, has recognized the value of modular open-standards based architectures for network control and tasking.

Spacetime can talk to many networks across domains and frequency bands because of its modular open systems approach, he explained. “It understands that if the fiber in the ground is slower than the space-to-ground link, it sees that and it schedules the network around it.”

Amid ongoing consolidation in the telecom industry, tools like Spacetime are becoming increasingly sought after, he added. “We see mergers of constellations in different frequencies and in different bands. And the investors and shareholders want to see them operate as one network.”

Aalyria from the beginning set out to support the military market, but not at the expense of the commercial market, said Barritt. Besides DoD, one of its key government customers is the European Space Agency. Commercial customers include satellite operators Telesat, Intelsat and Rivada Space Networks

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