January 25, 2023

From Simulation to Reality: How Digital Twins Are Transforming the Space Industry

Dr Brenton Smith

From supporting ground control in saving the Apollo 13 astronauts to testing thermal protection on the Space Shuttle, digital twins have been a core component of successful spacecraft design, verification and operations. As the number of spacecraft is set to grow by over 10x by 2030, digital twins once again will be fundamental to enable the space industry to operate sustainably. A digital twin for a satellite refers to a virtual replica of the physical satellite that is calibrated based on live telemetry data. The digital twin uses this data to create a virtual representation of the satellite that is as close as possible to the real thing.

One of the key benefits of digital twin technology for satellites is the ability to test and validate the satellite's design and performance before it is even built. This can help to identify and address potential issues before they become costly problems in the field. Additionally, digital twin technology can be used to simulate the satellite's environment and predict how it will perform under different conditions, allowing for more accurate design and better performance in the long run.

Another benefit of digital twin technology for satellites is the ability to monitor and maintain the satellite in real-time. Digital twin software can be used to track the satellite's performance, detect any issues, and make adjustments as needed. This can help to prolong the lifespan of the satellite and reduce the need for costly repairs or replacements.

Digital twin technology can also be used in conjunction with artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize the satellite's performance over time. By collecting and analysing data from the satellite, the digital twin can be used to identify patterns and make predictions about the satellite's behaviour. This can be used to improve the satellite's efficiency, extend its lifespan, and reduce the need for manual intervention.

While most organisation have one, or many, “digital twins”, they are often built on conflicting frameworks making their interoperation difficult and inconsistent. Further, building digital twins using incumbent frameworks is very labour intensive, often requiring a team of specialists to write models from scratch using inefficient tools.

An advantage of our digital twin platform, composed of Nominal Editor and Nominal Studio provides a unifying framework that makes it easy to create digital twins by assembling component models (written in most programming languages), or integrating with third-party legacy digital twin implementations.

Nominal enables this by:

  • System-level architecture with unmatched modularity: Nominal is designed from theground-up to be a modular system-level simulation tool. This makes it easy to assemble a “digital system” simulations by easily adding, substituting and/or removing unique simulation models of subsystem components to realise a plug-and-play environment for analysing system functionality. Subsystem simulation models can be entirely replaced by hardware to conduct hardware-in-the-loop testing.
  • Nominal is scalable by design: The Message Passing Interface (MPI) design architecture of NS’ digital twin architecture means that system simulations are not computationally bound, with a future pathway to scale out simulations to 1000s of satellites with full system simulations being modelled on High Performance Computer infrastructure. Nominal will scale to meet the growing number of satellites in orbit.
  • Nominal is extensible: Extensible software is easy to add new functionality to in the future is valuable because the software can be adapted to new challenges, use cases etc... Nominals’ architecture has focused on modularity, and therefore, is extensible by design. This means that Nominal is not limited to the space domain but can be extended to simulations of general things. Modules can be written for any system in any domain making multi-domain simulations easy including their integration together.

In conclusion, digital twin technology is a valuable tool for the satellite industry, providing benefits such as improved design, better performance, and real-time monitoring. As the technology continues to evolve and advance, we can expect to see even more ways in which digital twin technology can be used to improve the design, performance, and maintenance of satellites.