Amazon, Microsoft, SpiderOak join Defense Innovation Unit’s hybrid space network project

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DIU wants to demonstrate a hybrid space architecture using commercial communication systems as transport pipes to move data to military users

WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit on Nov. 2 announced new agreements with Amazon Web Services, Kuiper Government Solutions, Microsoft Azure Space and SpiderOak Mission Systems for a project to demonstrate space-based communications using interconnected commercial and government networks. 

DIU’s goal is to demonstrate a hybrid space architecture using commercial communication systems as transport pipes to move data collected by imaging satellites and deliver it quickly to military and government users. 

The hybrid-network concept assumes that commercial satellites will talk to each other via interoperable links, including radio-frequency spectrum, optical inter-satellite links, military tactical data links, and legacy ground wired networks.

The new contracts follow awards DIU made earlier this year to Aalyria, Anduril, Atlas, and Enveil

DIU is a Defense Department agency created to work with commercial companies that are not traditional defense contractors. The U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory also are participating in the hybrid architecture project.  

Under the hybrid architecture program, companies will be expected to collaborate in areas like network interoperability and compatibility with existing DoD assets. The prototyping work and demonstrations done under this project will support Space Force plans to design and deploy a hybrid communications architecture with additional layers of satellites to increase network resilience.

By adding cloud providers Amazon and Microsoft in this new phase of the program, DIU wants to link terrestrial cloud and internet services with proliferated commercial communications satellite constellations. SpiderOak will provide cybersecurity software for user authentication and data protection using blockchain ledgers to create a variable trust architecture.

Operations in Eastern Europe a use case

DIU said a use case for a hybrid network is seen today in Eastern Europe where armies rely on multiple cloud servers and various commercial communication terminals on the ground and in space to move data to and from the battlefield, and where cyber attacks are expected. “In a fully realized hybrid architecture, it will not matter if a commercial node is blocked, shut down, or destroyed, the future network will self heal and provide true resilience as long as there is an entry point for an individual user into the network,” said Rogan Shimmin, program manager of the hybrid space architecture at DIU.

John Moberly, senior vice president for space at SpiderOak, said DIU in this project “is really doing what they were chartered for, bringing in non-traditional suppliers with new approaches.”

A hybrid network creates cybersecurity challenges that cannot be solved with the traditional “checklist” approach, Moberly told SpaceNews. The company previously won Space Force Small Business Innovation Research contracts for its OrbitSecure software. Moberly said the DIU project is an opportunity to “demonstrate an enhanced space-domain cyber resilience even when network hardware or application software has been compromised.”

The company is teaming with satellite manufacturer York Space Systems to demonstrate the OrbitSecure software in a future space experiment, said Moberly. “We’re building out OrbitSecure and so we have several demonstrations with major primes going on.”

DIU is trying to prove out a “zero-trust architecture” where network users by default are not trusted and special keys are required to access encrypted data. SpideOak uses blockchain for data transactions so every modification made to the ledger is time stamped and signed, ensuring traceability.

Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft, in a blog post said the DIU hybrid space architecture project “will leverage key capabilities from our suite of Azure Space solutions, including Azure Orbital Cloud Access and Azure Orbital Ground Station.” 

The company’s global data transport network and cloud, said Zander, “bring together key functions of the hybrid space architecture, including remote sensing, multi-path communications and cloud computing.”

Amazon said AWS will work with DIU to identify scenarios to integrate cloud services and technologies into hybrid space architecture.

Project Kuiper will model components of a potential hybrid government-Kuiper data transport architecture to support services such as on-demand weather data. In the second phase of the project, the company will do hardware-in-the-loop and software-in-the-loop testing.