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Microsoft strengthens ties with final frontier pioneers

Microsoft doesn’t build rockets. It doesn’t build satellites, and it doesn’t have a launch pad. So what does Microsoft’s Azure Space business unit do?

“Azure Space is about bringing cloud computing and space technologies together with a partner ecosystem,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me.

From the beginning, partnerships have been “a foundational part of our approach to space,” Kitay said. So, two years after launching its space-centric cloud computing service, Microsoft is taking a new step to deepen those partnerships by establishing the Azure Space Partner Community.

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Microsoft pushes autonomous drones to new heights

How do you teach an autonomous drone to fly itself? Practice, practice, practice.

Now Microsoft is offering a way to put a drone’s control software through its paces millions of times before the first takeoff.

The cloud-based simulation platform, Project AirSim, is being made available in limited preview starting today, in conjunction with this week’s Farnborough International Airshow in Britain.

“Project AirSim is a critical tool that lets us bridge the world of bits and the world of atoms, and it shows the power of the industrial metaverse — the virtual worlds where businesses will build, test and hone solutions, and then bring them into the real world,” Gurdeep Pall, Microsoft corporate vice president for business incubations in technology and research, said today in a blog posting.

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Old satellites could get a new lease on life via the cloud

What do you do with an aging weather satellite? If you’re the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you turn to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep it going.

After a yearlong demonstration project, the three partners determined that there is a way, thanks to cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

The demonstration — conducted under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short — showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, NOAA-18, in a way that met NOAA’s specifications.

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Boeing hires three giants to build its billion-dollar cloud

The billion-dollar competition to provide Boeing with cloud computing services is finished, and the winner is … a three-way split. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft are all getting a share of the business, Boeing announced today.

In a LinkedIn post, Susan Doniz, Boeing’s chief information officer and senior VP for information technology and data analytics, called it a “multi-cloud partnership.”

“This represents a significant investment in the digital tools that will empower Boeing’s next 100 years,” she wrote. “These partnerships strengthen our ability to test a system — or an aircraft — hundreds of times using digital twin technology before it is deployed.”

Doniz said that becoming more cloud-centric will provide Boeing with “global scalability and elasticity without having to predict, procure, maintain and pay for on-premises servers.” Financial details relating to the multi-cloud partnership were not disclosed.

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AI gets tested on space station, starting with gloves

“Check my spacewalking gloves, HAL.”

The HAL 9000 computer that starred in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — and made such a mess of maintenance issues on the Discovery One spaceship — isn’t on the job on the International Space Station. But Microsoft and Hewlett Packard Enterprise are teaming up with NASA to put artificial intelligence to work on mundane orbital tasks, starting with the chore of checking spacewalkers’ gloves for wear and tear.

That’s just one of two dozen experiments in AI, cloud and edge computing that have been run on HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 since the hardware was sent to the space station a year ago.

“We’re bringing AI to space and empowering space developers off the planet with Azure, and it’s enabling the ability to build in the cloud and then deploy in space,” Steve Kitay, senior director of Azure Space at Microsoft, told me.

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Microsoft adds a new superposition to quantum team

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum cloud computing service will be adding a brand-new tool to its toolbox: Pasqal’s neutral-atom quantum processing system.

When the French company’s system becomes available later this year, it will provide a method for processing data that’s different from the other methods offered through Azure Quantum.

“Running algorithms on Pasqal’s neutral-atom hardware opens the door to unique capabilities no other quantum system offers,” Pasqal CEO and founder Georges-Olivier Reymond said in a news release.

Unlike the rigid one-or-zero approach of classical computing, quantum computing makes use of quantum bits, or qubits, that can essentially represent different states simultaneously until the results are read out.

Theoretically, the quantum approach should be able to solve certain types of problems, such as network optimization, much more quickly than the classical approach. The technology could open new frontiers in fields ranging from traffic planning to drug development to data encryption.

Azure Quantum — and other cloud-based services including Amazon Braket, IBM Quantum, D-Wave Leap and Google Quantum AI — are already experimenting with hybrid quantum algorithms and looking forward to the development of full-stack, general-purpose quantum computing systems.

The two main avenues for developing quantum hardware make use of superconducting circuits and ion traps. Pasqal takes a different approach, involving neutral atoms that are manipulated at room temperature with laser-powered optical “tweezers.”

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Microsoft says it’s made a crucial quantum leap

Microsoft says its researchers have found evidence of an exotic phenomenon that’s key to its plans to build general-purpose quantum computers.

The phenomenon, known as a Majorana zero mode, is expected to smooth the path for topological quantum computing — the technological approach that’s favored by Microsoft’s Azure Quantum program.

Quantum computing is a weird enough concept by itself: In contrast with the rigid one-or-zero world of classical computing, quantum computing juggles quantum bits, or qubits, that can represent ones and zeroes simultaneously until the results are read out.

Scientists say the quantum approach can solve certain types of problems — for example, network optimization or simulations of molecular interactions — far more quickly than the classical approach. Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services and other cloud-based services are already using hybrid systems to bring some of the benefits of the quantum approach to applications ranging from drug development to traffic management.

At the same time, Microsoft and other companies are trying to build the hardware and software for “full-stack” quantum computing systems that can take on a far wider range of applications. Microsoft has chosen a particularly exotic technological strategy, which involves inducing quantum states on topological superconducting wires. To keep those quantum states stable, the wires would host Majorana zero modes localized at each end.

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How quantum tricks can ease a traffic jam in deep space

Microsoft has demonstrated how quantum-inspired algorithms can help smooth out Seattle’s snarled traffic, but can they solve NASA’s interplanetary data traffic jam? Initial results from a project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggests they can.

Microsoft’s Azure Quantum team says it’s been working with JPL to optimize the management of communications windows for the Deep Space Network. The network relies on giant radio antennas in California, Spain and Australia to handle communications with more than 30 space probes, including the James Webb Space Telescope and NASA’s Mars rovers.

Optimizing the schedule for communicating with all those probes requires intensive computer resources, especially because the DSN is having to deal with increasing demands for high-bandwidth data transmissions. “Capacity is a big pressure,” JPL’s Michael Levesque, deputy director of the DSN, said in a recent news release.

Fortunately, schedule optimization is one of the sweet spots for Azure Quantum’s algorithms.

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Microsoft expands its cloud ecosystem in space

One year after Microsoft expanded its Azure cloud domain to the final frontier, the company is taking another giant leap in its campaign to build a digital ecosystem for the space community.

Today, Azure Space is lifting the curtain on a new array of space-centric offerings, including satellite imagery from Airbus, software-based communication links from ST Engineering iDirect and geospatial data analysis from Esri, Blackshark.ai and Orbital Insight.

Microsoft is also unveiling a couple of in-house tools to enhance satellite images.

Taken together, the enhancements should provide more possibilities for solving problems on our home planet, said Stephen Kitay, senior director of Azure Space.

“What we’re focused on is bringing the space community and cloud together,” Kitay told GeekWire. “Our purpose is to innovate faster, to help these companies innovate faster and democratize the benefits of space, because ultimately space is critical to life here on Earth.”

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Quantum-style computing is getting real-world tests

Microsoft and KPMG are getting set to test Azure Quantum’s capabilities on the sorts of real-world problems that should give quantum computing an edge over traditional approaches.

Such problems have to do with optimizing systems and networks, such as where best to place cellular phone towers or how to allocate investments to match a client’s priorities relating to risks vs. rewards.

“Optimization problems are found in many industries and are often difficult to solve using traditional methods which can accelerate optimization,” Krysta Svore, general manager of Microsoft Quantum, explained today in a blog post. “Emulating these quantum effects on classical computers has led to the development of quantum-inspired optimization (QIO) algorithms that run on classical hardware.”

Such algorithms reflect the quantum perspective, in which information doesn’t necessarily take the form of rigid ones and zeroes but can instead reflect a range of values simultaneously during processing. The beauty of QIO algorithms is that they don’t need to run on honest-to-goodness quantum processors, which are still in their infancy.