AUSTIN (KXAN) — IBM Space, a team at tech giant IBM, unveiled plans to develop a new computer platform that will be used on several upcoming space stations and starships. The partnership, with space technology company Sierra Space, will lead to an open-source platform, think Windows, that will allow virtually anyone to create software for Sierra Space’s fleet.

Sierra Space is developing a slew of spacecraft. These include Dream Catcher, a space plane designed for easier reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere and an inflatable habitat that can be attached to a space station.

The team is also working in partnership with Blue Origin to build Orbital Reef, a space station that will be used for research and space tourism.

“We call this the orbital age, and in order to do that, we need vital infrastructure,” said Ken Shields, senior director of business development at Sierra Space.

Creating computers for the ‘orbital age’

The platform being developed by IBM Space will fulfill this role.

“We are looking to democratize access to space. What that means is how can everyone access to space as developers as users, as researchers,” said Naeem Altaf, IBM distinguished engineer and chief technology officer at IBM Space.

Altaf said the platform they’re developing will be open-sourced, meaning any computer programmer will have access to the code and can develop their own programs for the system.

A scale model of the Sierra Space Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) habitat, part of an Orbital Reef space station, is displayed at the company’s booth ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 4, 2022. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

These programs could be used by Sierra Space, who said they’ll need them as the space industry expands.

“We’re entering an age right now, where we’re going to see research into things like medicine and human health, but also new materials. We’re also looking at tourism and entertainment,” Shields said.

The challenges of computers in space

This sounds super neat, right? But it’s more complicated than putting an iPad on a space shuttle and telling anyone they can make programs for it. Computing in space and sending that data back to Earth is complicated.

According to Altaf, radiation in space means the system they develop has to be protected. Also, objects are moving incredibly fast. This makes sending data back down to Earth difficult, as the windows for doing so are short.

Essentially, the objects flying overhead at thousands of miles per hour may only have a few seconds or minutes to beam their data back down to Earth.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JANUARY 06: The Sierra Space Dream Chaser spaceplane is shown on display at the Sierra Space booth at CES 2022 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 6, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“There is a tremendous amount of data being produced in space, whether we are through satellite, on space stations,” Altaf said analyzing that data by beaming it to Earth is time-consuming.

Part of the new system they’re developing will use Edge Computing, a different system developed by IBM that will allow data to be analyzed onboard space stations and spacecraft.

“We want to bring the environment, the operating environments on Earth to space and bring space to Earth,” said Ken Shields about the new platform.

The first major test for the new platform will be on board Dream Catcher 1. The first launch of the space plane is scheduled for next year.