NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission small satellite, built by Ball Aerospace, underwent environmental testing at Ball’s Boulder facility. Credit: Ball Aerospace

SAN FRANCISCO – Ball Aerospace and Seagate Technology Holdings are working together to develop and test high-capacity commercial data processing and storage devices for spaceflight applications.

The companies are conducting laboratory demonstrations to determine how Seagate storage devices can be integrated with Ball spaceflight avionics and software.

“The hardware is equivalent to what we might want to fly in terms of processing capability, operating system and data rates for a lot of the use cases that we’ve developed,” David Ellis, Ball Aerospace strategic capabilities and partnerships director, told SpaceNews.

The two companies plan to conduct further testing of a Seagate storage device providing memory for a Ball payload on a small satellite in low Earth orbit in 2023.

The growth of the space sector along with surging demand for data processing and storage is attracting the attention of firms focused primarily on terrestrial markets.

“Lots of data is coming off focal planes and RF sensors,” Ellis said. “There are a lot of things that we can do onboard [satellites] if can keep up with what the sensors are putting out. We can do a little bit of processing, downlink important things first, stack frames to get better signal-to-noise.”

The Ball-Seagate partnership began when Ball was looking for data storage devices that offered “higher capacity, higher density, lower power and more commercial-like interfaces,” Ellis said.

Seagate evaluated the market and found its niche between the “high-end, small-capacity, radiation-hardened storage devices” and “commercial-off-the-shelf storage devices,” said Jon Trantham, Seagate principal technologist. “We didn’t see something in the middle that is a little more robust for space application, but yet still brings the commodity interfaces, high bandwidth, high performance of a commercial product.”

Through its work with Ball, Seagate is “trying to learn whether we can cost-effectively harden portions of the design to make a much more reliable data storage product that could then be used in a variety of applications in space,” Trantham said. “Seagate generally makes commodity products that conform to standard interfaces. Our goal here is to make a standard storage product, a tool that can be used in whatever application.”

Seagate engineers are used to size and power constraints. Developing lightweight devices for spacecraft presents a new challenge, though.

“In general weight has never been one of our critical-to-quality parameters,” Trantham said.

Radiation presents additional challenges.

Even if a Seagate device were integrated with a small satellite instrument in low Earth orbit, it would be unlikely to be exposed to high levels of radiation. As a result, radiation testing is being performed on the ground to determine how Seagate devices react.

“If I’m an instrument provider, I don’t necessarily have to be free of upsets,” Ellis said. “I have to know what the upset does to me. Does a reboot clear it? If it’s not destructive, the majority of our mission space can tolerate nondestructive upsets. We take care of it in software or we take care of it by writing the data more than once and doing some error checking.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...