Seagate signs orbital satellite storage drive collaboration

Satellite builder Ball Aerospace has signed a memorandum of understanding with Seagate  to collaborate on data processing and storage technology in space.

Update: It’s SSD-based. See +Comment 2 section below; 1 Aug 2022.

Ball Aerospace builds satellites and instruments involved in Earth science and operational environmental missions, environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, emission tracking and water usage observation. It provides environmental intelligence on weather, the Earth’s climate system, precipitation, drought, air pollution, severe storms, vegetation and biodiversity measurements. Seagate is the disk drive market leader and has a small SSD business on the side.

Mike Gazarik, VP Engineering at Ball Aerospace, said in a statement: “There is a need for on-orbit, high-density storage capabilities to meet new mission requirements – in essence space-ready storage that works and acts like terrestrial storage. Therefore, we decided to collaborate on a proof-of-concept solution because Ball has the heritage and experience in designing and building space systems, while Seagate has extensive data storage expertise.”

Ball Aerospace staff prepping a satellite

This collaboration involves planned lab and on-orbit demonstrations to test the concept, which would include Seagate-built technology to support testing of space memory on a Ball-built payload.

Ed Gage, VP of Seagate Research, said: “We consider space the next frontier for data growth, enabled by high-capacity, low-cost secure storage devices. As a leader in our industry and with over 40 years of expertise, we are uniquely positioned to solve the challenges of space systems that store large amounts of data.”


Does this mean what we think it means: hard disk drives in orbiting satellites? They are certainly high-ish capacity, at 20TB for Seagate currently, and lower-cost than equivalent capacity SSDs. Disk drives in orbiting satellites need to be built in sealed enclosures so their air-driven head suspension works, and they also need to withstand launch stresses and the low temperatures in space. A third concern is high levels of radiation in space and their electronics need hardening to withstand that. A fourth might be the drive’s inherent angular momentum from its rotating platters affecting the satellite’s positioning.

We can’t really see Ball collaborating with Seagate over SSDs in space, as Seagate has a miniscule share of the SSD market, and doesn’t build its own chips or controllers. It would make more sense  for Ball to collaborate with a NAND foundry and SSD maker. We’ve asked Seagate to confirm that the collaboration focus is on disk drives.

+Comment 2

Ah, we were wrong. A Seagate spokesperson said: “We’re working on a solid state-based SSD-based storage solution concept with Ball Aerospace for LEO (Low Earth Orbit) storage.  We went with SSD because these LEO satellites are small, lightweight, unshielded, unpressurized, and lacking environmental temperature controls. Low-weight is also paramount in this application.”

A Seagate blog says: “Existing products in the radiation-hardened, specialty storage market are typically expensive, slow, and devoid of the most recent technological advancements…. There are obstacles to hardening a commercial solid-state drive (SSD) for space. Commercial SSDs often use low-density parity codes for error recovery and have complex mapping tables and garbage collection. These lead to controllers with millions of gates, which require modern photolithography (i.e., well below 20 nanometers) for suitable performance and power consumption.”

And: “Putting these controllers in a radiation-hardened application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) or field-programmable gate array (FPGA) is generally infeasible or very expensive. Most radiation-tolerant FPGAs are in older lithography nodes and are challenged for performance and gates. Radiation-hardened ASICs can cost millions of dollars to develop, and with NAND flash chips changing every year or two, can quickly become obsolete.”

“The flash used within SSDs poses an additional challenge. Flash chips are designed for high-volume consumer and enterprise applications here on Earth. Flash vendors spend billions of dollars in developing factories (“fabs”) specifically for these components. The designs of these chips change frequently as new innovations arise. Designing a flash chip specifically for space could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in development.”

So: “We’ve developed a concept for a new secure aerospace data storage device designed with features that make it more robust for LEO and similar environments. 

“The essence of the solution is to use radiation-tolerant/radiation-hard components only where critical or inexpensive and to use error detection and mitigation techniques for radiation-induced events—especially on expensive, unavoidable soft components to minimize their impact. Care has been made to harden the areas of the design that are most critical for reliability and to use less-expensive commercial components where feasible.”