A satellite flying above the earth.
Image: NASA/Unsplash

It’s no secret that every industry is looking for better ways to manage their data, with global data volumes expected to double from 2022 to 2026. And the answer for future storage innovations may be in the sky above us.

Take, for example, NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission, which plans to conduct the first-ever global survey of Earth’s surface water to better understand how climate change is impacting our oceans, lakes and streams. According to NASA, the satellites used in SWOT’s mission will be sending one terabyte of unprocessed data back to Earth per day.

For missions like this, data must be stored safely to endure the realities of space — sometimes for months on end — and then delivered back to Earth in a readily accessible and available manner. Significant amounts of R&D, planning and strategy go into missions of this magnitude, and every piece of technology sent into orbit must adhere to unique requirements in order to be successful.

The way these technologies operate in space helps us develop and improve upon existing technologies that we use every day. For example, smartphone cameras based on CMOS sensors, baby formula, the computer mouse, wireless headphones and scratch-resistant lenses all came from space-related innovations.

The following are major takeaways that business leaders can learn based on technologies developed for space exploration to help improve the products we use on Earth.

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Mission critical: Data reliability

The environment in space is incredibly harsh and unlike anything found on Earth. The technology required to travel to and from space must withstand these extreme conditions, which present significant challenges.

Think about it. On takeoff, electronic components move around; they take violent beatings from extreme vibration. Then once in orbit, these electronic components must still work amid extreme thermal changes that vary greatly hourly. They must be able to survive the likes of space radiation, which can degrade electronics and affect their overall functioning. They must also endure ionizing particles and random space phenomena that can destroy sensitive microchips and render them useless.

This makes reliable space technology mission-critical. Reliability starts at the product design and development phase, and must be baked into every component on the mission. Today, product development teams have taken some of these learnings, resulting in data storage products like flash and SDDs, engineered to be “space grade” or “radiation hard.”

Many everyday products have benefited greatly from learnings in reliability from space — everything from automotive parts to cookware that endures high heat to common electronics designed to be reliable and functional in extreme use cases.

Storage engineers around the world are also adjusting their design approach based on feedback from companies working in space exploration. Using the Design for Reliability approach, engineers are prioritizing reliability and designing data storage products using state-of-the-art methods to ensure high-performance and low-voltage to overcome various limitations.

While earthbound data technologies face different challenges, the overall need for improved reliability in space enables more resilient data storage technology for use on Earth.

Data integrity is vital

Just as important as data reliability during space missions is data integrity. The term data integrity describes data that is accurate, complete and consistent. In other words, it’s not corrupted.

For data storage on space missions and on Earth, data integrity is preserved by technology innovations that protect flash-based memory from cosmic rays causing bitflips — the dreaded phenomena when a 1 becomes a 0 or vice versa, which would cause the entire data set to be ruined.

In space, satellites are capable of capturing thousands upon thousands of terabytes of data every day — potentially petabytes of data every year. For context, a petabyte is enough storage for roughly 11,000 4K movies, which would take five years of non-stop binge watching to get through it all.

Most of the time it is not feasible or desirable to transmit all data back to Earth in real-time. Because of this, engineers have discovered acute requirements for data integrity to ensure data retains its value to be analyzed in space or back on land.

While there are various definitions for data integrity including uncorrectable bit error rate, which also applies to enterprise applications, failure to maintain data integrity can lead to data corruption and loss, causing significant challenges. For example, if an autonomous vehicle makes an incorrect calculation based on corrupt data, it could potentially lead to an accident.

As space technology grows to develop increasingly better systems that rely on data and data integrity, those same strategies can be applied to systems on Earth in intelligent application use cases around us.

Space: The ultimate testing ground

Space is full of hard problems to solve. When we engineer products with more extreme environments in mind — like space, or even extreme heat and cold on Earth — chances are those products will also work in less extreme places and gain advantages from the process. This might make space the ultimate testing ground. One example where we can see data storage designed with the extremities of space in mind is in the automotive industry.

Vehicles are no longer merely for transportation from point A to point B; they are now essentially data centers on wheels and also require data storage reliability and data integrity. There are some other common challenges to Earth-bound vehicles and those we launch beyond our atmosphere: variable ranges of temperatures, lots of vibration, potential for extreme weather, environmental differences en route and exposure to solar radiation.

As this cycle of innovation continues, there will be many ways for tech leaders to ensure they’re keeping up with the latest advances from space; from cross-industry collaboration, and research and development efforts, to monitoring the latest NASA technologies. Throughout this process, we will encounter more challenges from space and Earth that will require clever engineering and problem solving. And data. Always more data.

Russell Ruben's headshot.
Russell Ruben

As Western Digital’s Automotive Segment Director, Russell Ruben is responsible for the global go-to market and product strategies for the automotive industry. Previously, he was Western Digital’s Surveillance and Connected Home marketing director, and before that he was responsible for the automotive business in Korea and Japan.

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