Sometimes the outcome of a space mission isn’t the mission itself, but the lessons learnt.
According to Dr Christopher Capon, CEO and co-founder of the software testing business Nominal Systems, this is exactly what Australia’s fledgling space industry needs right now.
“We haven’t had the opportunities to make the mistakes, and we don’t necessarily have a culture in Australia of accepting failure and accepting things not working,” he says.
“It’s all about innovating quickly. If you aim to be perfect and the best at every point, then you will have to go so slow that you won’t actually get anywhere.”
Dr Capon says the current dead-on-arrival rate for modern spacecrafts launched globally is 10 per cent. Furthermore, they have a 40 per cent chance of experiencing a partial systems failure in orbit.
“What people do well at the moment is what’s called acceptance testing. You shake it, you bake it and you see if you can break it when it comes to your spacecraft,” he explains. “What you don’t need to do is demonstrate that the spacecraft is actually going to work when it gets to orbit.”
However, Capon says the key to gaining a competitive advantage in space is not necessarily about designing the best orbits, but designing the best systems and software to support the hardware in orbit.
Creating a safe-to-fail environment
Dr Capon co-founded Nominal Systems with Chief Technology Officer Dr Brenton Smith in 2019. The start-up specialises in simulation tools that enable organisations to deliver complex space systems at speed and with confidence.
Leveraging their digital twin technology, the confluence of the internet-of-things, cloud and advanced simulation, the Nominal helps customers design, test and optimise their products in a safe-to-fail environment.
The company’s first product, Nominal Editor, is a digital framework for space systems that’s designed to support engineers and project managers.
“It’s focused on enabling quick concept designs,” says Capon. “Effectively, you can build a spacecraft kind of like Lego, from the bottom up.
“Nominal Editor has so many sophisticated capabilities enabling detailed satellite modelling, and the computer game–style graphics provide a very immersive environment,” says Dr Trevor Lafleur, Principal Engineer at ThrustMe.
“The possibility to interface with hardware components is particularly attractive, as it allows hardware-in-the-loop testing in a safe space environment.”
Nominal Systems is also developing another product called Nominal Studio, which allows people at any level of skill or expertise – not just engineers – to design a space system.
“Think of the video game Kerbal Space Program, but on steroids,” Capon says. “Users can do tradespace analysis and then they can link in telemetry from real data sources, so they can see both by using it as an early concept design tool, but then also as a mission analysis and planning environment.
While the relationship between Nominal Systems and Microsoft is still in its infancy, the space start-up is impressed by the speed and scalability of Azure.
“We actually got one of our lead engineers to see what he could get done with Azure in a day and give us some insights, like how it differs compared to other cloud providers in terms of deploying an application,” says Dr Capon.
“He really liked some of the low-code aspects. What we’ve experienced with some of the other cloud providers is that we need a cloud engineer in order to do anything.”
Microsoft’s willingness to provide technical expertise for deploying cloud applications is another a big drawcard, according to Capon.
“If we have to hire a particular cloud developer and then deploy on a particular environment, it means we have to go through a hiring process, we have to onboard the person and they have to understand everything,” he says.
“Whereas if we can partner with someone who has that expertise and can point us in the right direction and say, ‘Load your application here’, then that’s very attractive to us.”