Galaxia Mission Systems Wins Unique Software-Defined Earth Observation Contract

A satellite of the MÖBIUS Constellation. Credit: Galaxia Mission Systems.

Halifax-based Galaxia Mission Systems recently received a $1.7 million award under the CSA’s Space Technology Development Program (STDP) for “the first software-defined Earth observation (EO) platform.”

The contract is for demonstrating their Möbius Constellation, which is described by the CSA as a “software-defined Earth observation platform” and by Galaxia as “Space Sensors As A Service” (SSaS). Galaxia’s actual goal, however, is to provide computational capacity in space based on the kind of familiar terrestrial hardware that powers modern AI—and to create tools and environments that make those platforms accessible to governments and small enterprises alike.

In an interview with SpaceQ, founder and CEO Arad Gharagozli discussed the company and the award. 

Dalhousie and LORIS

Like many Canadian space startups, Galaxia found its start in a university-based space organization. Gharagozli went to Dalhousie, and while he was working on his degree in electrical engineering his interest in space led him to found the “Dalhousie Space Systems Lab.” The lab went on to join the Canadian CubeSat Program, and got a $200,000 grant in 2018 to design and build a CubeSat: the Low Orbit Reconnaissance Imagery Satellite, or LORIS, which was intended to test new satellite frame materials and battery storage technology, and which had multispectral imagery capabilities. 

After he finished his degree, he was still leading the mission, so Arad formed Galaxia in 2020 to continue working on the LORIS project. Arad said that “we did a lot of the R&D…[and] a lot of the assembly, integration and testing at Galaxia,” and finished LORIS in 2021. Once LORIS was done, Gharagozli and Galaxia were free to pivot to their current focus: space-based computers.

Galaxia and Space-Based Computing

Gharagozli said that the goal of the company is to “reimagine how computation is done in space.” They want to focus on “developing computers that are a departure from traditional satellite computers…that mission critical aspects are in place, but we’ve wanted to make computers that are a bit developer friendly.” Gharagozli used the analogy of an iPhone, where developers don’t have to concern themselves with programming down to “the bare metal,” but have tools and software layers that let them focus on building an application that can use satellite-based computers to solve problems and amass needed information. Gharagozli said that they want to “allow people with any kind of background who have great ideas for space to be able to come in and play in this field.” 

Like Apple, Galaxia produces their own standardized hardware in order to allow customers to enjoy that certainty. Asked whether they were more of a “software” or “hardware” company, Gharagozli said that they were definitely more of a hardware company, and specifically a “hardware leaning company with software solutions.” Two of their current products, the ARM-based “Firefly” CPUs and NVIDIA-based “Raven” GPUs, are sold as standalone hardware, but Gharagozli explained that they have “a software layer on top of it…a dashboard that puts the computer in the heart of the satellite and lets you design everything around it.”  He said that it “makes the design of the satellite a very elegant process that it wasn’t before.”  

When paired with Earth Observation payloads, like Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) or multispectral and hyperspectral cameras, this will let clients handle computation on the satellite itself as much as possible before having to send the information down to Earth for further processing. And, with the software layer that Galaxia provides to interface with the hardware, they also aim to make creating those space-based programs and applications as easy as possible. 

Gharagozli was particularly animated when discussing their NVIDIA-based GPU hardware. As GPU-based artificial intelligence and satellite-based edge computing are key spaces for innovation at the moment, mixing the two together creates lots of possibilities. Gharagozli said that “I was very much in love with what [NVIDIA] have built as far as their development environment goes,” and that he thought that their “JetPack” SDK (Software Development Kit) and its healthy and growing community was worthwhile to bring to space. “Our users aren’t sitting around waiting for Galaxia to give them stuff. You can go and find an additional library that makes your parallel computing 10 times faster,  because somebody else has built it and you can just import it.” 

Galaxia is an NVIDIA partner, Gharagozli said, and they’re working with NVIDIA to adapt their forward roadmap to NVIDIA’s offerings. They’re focused on issues like power draw, parallel load-balancing between connected satellites, and especially radiation mitigation, as well as adding software layers and what he described as a “virtualized environment.” He said that they’re particularly useful for machine vision; that they are “very good at being able to process images or a stream of images simultaneously.” This will benefit their earth observation clients. 

Möbius Constellation

Galaxia recently received $1.7 million from the CSA’s STDP to carry a demonstration of their Möbius Constellation into space. According to their release (PDF), this initial launch will feature a pair of satellites which will “take two years to build and one year to undergo testing,” with launch being slated for sometime in 2025.

Built and operated by Galaxia, Möbius will be Atlantic Canada’s first developed satellite constellation—Gharagozli noted that Galaxia is “the only satellite manufacturer east of Montreal,” and he said that it will “give software developers access to build applications and run them onboard the satellite.” Unlike their existing client-owned hardware, Möbius’ capability will be available to anybody who builds an application for it. The aim is to make the capabilities as straightforward and accessible as possible; tasking satellites and their payloads, load-balancing between satellites within the constellation, and general mission management will all be handled by Galaxia, so clients can focus solely on their applications. Gharagozli said that the goal is to have small teams, as little as three people, be able to take advantage of space-based sensors and computation.

The initial focus is earth observation; the CSA called Möbius a “software-defined Earth Observation platform” which will “host an array of powerful and versatile space sensors on a shared-access basis.” Their marketing materials for the constellation call it a “Space Sensors as a Service (SSaS) system.” But while Möbius will include a multispectral camera, and Gharagozli grants that “a lot of our applications are Earth Observation,” he believes that there’s applications beyond that. 

He pointed to one company focused on blockchain applications, which is investigating space-based solutions, as they’re interested in whether and how satellite-based computing can add an additional layer of security for their applications by moving outside the terrestrial Internet as a whole. He’s also interested in space-based “Line of Sight” computing, where IoT devices on mission-critical remote infrastructure can be monitored and managed directly by satellite-based applications within line of sight, without the potentially lengthy delay caused by transmission of data to and from ground-based computers. 

Gharagozli is excited by non-EO applications like this, and said that they “are starting a hackathon, we’re aiming for the end of summer, to open the doors up and tell people that this is out there.” 

Even with the EO applications, Gharagozli made it clear that “we don’t develop the tools, aside from a specific ship detection tool we’re working on…applications onboard the spacecraft are being designed by our partners.” He returned again to Apple, saying that Apple developers know the capabilities of the device, and the development environment that they’re working in, so they can create apps to exploit those capabilities without having to know every minute detail of the phone’s operation. Möbius is intended to operate the same way, where the data stream and the computational capacity are “provided to our developers in an easy to use software stack.”  

Developers don’t even necessarily need to concern themselves with where the satellites are or what they’re looking at; the constellation itself will, once ready, be able to manage the requests and provide the data where needed on a first-come, first serve basis—with a special level of priority access for governmental and defense clients.  Galaxia is funding their platform by asking for a percentage of revenues for the developer’s license, as well as a per-minute charge. He said that it will “work very much like Amazon.” 

In the release, Gharagozli said that their aim is to “make historic advancements for the global space industry, while bringing high-tech industries, jobs and opportunity to Atlantic Canada.”

Growing Galaxia in Atlantic Canada

As to the question of working in Atlantic Canada, and of Galaxia’s status as a startup in general, Gharagozli was very positive. Gharaghozli and Galaxia were a part of the Emera ideaHUB, whose founding director Margaret Palmeter said that Gharagozli “has developed an innovative technology with tremendous market potential.”  

Gharagozli said that the company is doing well, thanks to some “small pockets of grants” early on, from this new $1.7 million STDP contract, and from some other ocean and maritime-related work connected to their Atlantic Canada location. The company has grown to 13 people, primarily engineers, and with most of them people who’d worked on the LORAS mission. He said he was happy to be working with these people, and that “it’s been a dream” being able to bring them on board. He said that “everybody really enjoys their work” and about the projects that they’re involved in. 

On the question of fundraising beyond these grants and contracts, Gharagozli said that “we have not diluted at all.” They are still 100% Halifax-owned, and Gharagozli is the sole founder. He said that they’re “seeing strong demand from different sectors,” meaning a shorter runway to sustainability and profitability. 

They are planning on a funding round starting around “mid to late summer,” but their success up to this point makes him confident that they can “increase the valuation of the company without getting into it too early.”

About Craig Bamford

Craig started writing for SpaceQ in 2017 as their space culture reporter, shifting to Canadian business and startup reporting in 2019. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and has a Master's Degree in International Security from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He lives in Toronto.

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