The Internet in Space is boring

This is part of a series of working at Kepler Communications. As usual, all opinions and views expressed on this blog are my own.

I’ve just crossed the four-year mark of being at Kepler Communications. In that time, our software team has

  • grown from two people to over twenty;
  • we’ve gone from operating two satellites to nearly twenty (we are now the largest satellite operator in Canada);
  • and humans have gone from being a one-planet species to a… well, we’re still a one-planet species.

The biggest change within the company is where our development resources are focused. Kepler’s mission has always been to deliver the Internet in Space (more on what that means below). As a startup, we’ve had to take a less direct route while as we built expertise, reputation, and capital.

The early years

When I started at Kepler, we had several projects on the go. One project was Global Data Service (GDS). GDS allowed our customers to move large amounts of data between any two points on the surface of the earth. The catch was that latency was measured in hours. Think of it like e-mail with a one or two hour delay. One use of GDS was retrieving data collected on a research vessel where other satellite connectivity options are limited. The MOSAiC expedition chose Kepler’s services to use aboard the Polarstern because Kepler could deliver bulk data at a reasonable cost.

Kepler was also working on an Internet of Things (IoT) offering that would allow customers to send and receive messages on low-powered devices from anywhere. Think of this as a kind of high-latency SMS service for low-power devices. A benefit of Kepler’s service is that it was truly global. everywhereIOT™ was like being able to use a cellphone while travelling without needing a roaming plan or juggling SIM cards for multiple providers.

The downside of all the services was they each required specialized applications to use our network. This meant a lot of developer time: over ten people maintained the file transfer service alone. But that was 2019. Fast forward to 2023.

The Internet in Space

These days, most of our efforts are devoted to building our ÆTHER service. Instead of providing asynchronous (high latency) messaging or file transfer services for ground-based devices, Kepler is building Internet service for other satellites.

So what does providing Internet service for other satellites look like to customers? Well, quite simply, if you stick our antenna onto your satellite and plug a (virtual or physical) device into your router, you can talk to your satellite as though it were part of your local network just as if it were any other computer on your network with somewhat higher latency.

It’s a big deal

Putting on my software hat, the biggest deal about ÆTHER is that Kepler delivers Internet Protocol (IP) packets. For the non-tech people out there, Internet Protocol underlies almost every network-enabled application you are likely to use. So if your satellite has the computing power to run a piece of network software, you can use it over ÆTHER.

In theory, this means you could drag and drop a file between your computer and your satellite — maybe to send some new commands for it to perform or to grab some logs. Or, let’s say your satellite has a webcam. You could watch a live the feed with low enough latency that you could comfortably have a FaceTime video chat with an astronaut chilling outside the International Space Station (except, in space, nobody can hear you talk, let alone scream). Or you could even use it to host a web server. You can do all of these things using the software you’re familiar with. This greatly reduces development effort since we no longer have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, our first internal tests of network connectivity generally now involve ping, netcat, and ssh commands.

The thing I love most about working on ÆTHER is how boring it is to use. We have a fantastic team of developers and there is a lot of wizardry going on under the hood to make this all happen. But, at the end of the day, the technical aspects of connecting to ÆTHER is only marginally more complicated than bringing a new phone home and connecting to your wi-fi network!