Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) for space

architect plans

Companies in the space sector are facing a variety of new challenges and opportunities when it comes to the design of technology and missions.

New satellite innovation (in terms of functionality, size, launch options, communication, in-orbit control etc.) are giving engineers a greater range of options to account for, while changing commercial pressures are also requiring the development of efficient, high-performing systems at lower costs.

In addition, as the industry continues to open up around the world projects are becoming increasingly collaborative; crossing timezones, markets and international borders.

As a result, many engineers are investigating new ways to more easily exchange high-volume information during design and development.

One potential solution that has been gaining a lot of attention is Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) - an approach to the design of systems that involves a common set of domain models and ongoing data-sharing, and that can be applicable throughout the entire system lifecycle.

In this post we give a brief explanation of what MBSE is, detail some of the benefits it can bring, and review its use in a number of space applications and settings.

Before getting into the detail it should be pointed out that MBSE is just one potential systems engineering paradigm that can be used for certain relevant space-related applications. This article doesn’t advocate for MBSE over alternative approaches but simply serves as an introduction to the approach.

A brief introduction to MBSE

MBSE is a formalised approach to information exchange designed to make the design process more seamless and improve technical results.

It involves the specification of a set of related domain models for design, analysis and validation that use common design standards. These standards enable design concepts to be more easily explained and co-developed between multiple stakeholders.

The models rely on formal visual modelling principles that result in highly accurate blueprints of aspects of the overall system. Together the collection of models are sometimes referred to together as the Total System Model (TSM).

MBSE itself is also sometimes known as Model-Based Systems Development (MBSD), Model-Driven Development (MDD), or Model-Driven Engineering (MDE) and it can also play an important role in streamlining the System Development Life Cycle (SDLC).

Apollo lunar model plans
Planning the Apollo missions could presumably have been a little easier with modern approaches such as MBSE!

MBSE requires all relevant assets, datasets, documents, diagrams, 3D models and specifications to be digitised in order to facilitate information-sharing.

These assets are transferred into a modelling environment and a comprehensive system architecture model is developed, which provides a framework for the entire project.

This approach can bring a lot of value to users at all levels.

The benefits of MBSE

These MBSE approach offers a number of benefits, particularly when compared with more traditional approaches, for example:

Customer/requirements-driven - MBSE models can be continually assessed and tested against changing requirements to ensure that new design changes are tracked back to meet specific user needs.

A common design environment - a single source of truth for the collaborative design of new systems to ensure every stakeholder is clear on the most up-to-date design.

Seamless collaboration - the ability to cooperate across multiple systems and between partners in several different organisations and countries.

Reuse of existing models - future missions and system designs are made more efficient through the ability to reuse and adapt existing models.

Faster, safer testing - effective testing of space equipment is difficult, time-consuming and costly. By enabling virtual testing of some relevant model elements, it is possible to make the testing process simpler and easier. Although model testing can’t replace the rigour of physical tests, it can simplify some aspects of it.

No single point of failure - as MBSE models are collaboratively developed and shared amongst participating stakeholders there is usually no single system, data centre or program that would result in a catastrophe were it to fail.

It should be noted that MBSE does have drawbacks, particularly when it comes to the need to use digitised assets in domains where documents and data are often closed and private.

The security of sensitive information is also important - MBSE relies open sharing of quite specific details. The stakeholders involved need to ensure that only information that they are happy to transmit (and have the legal right to use) are input into the models used.

Facilitating more beneficial approaches, such as MBSE, to the design of new products and missions is one of the reasons we are working to open up the industry here at satsearch through the digitisation of datasheets and other product information.

We’re also working with a range of partners to plug the global space supply chain into different space engineering software packages, including MBSE tools, by connecting our growing database to third-party tools - you can find out more about our various software integrations here. For example, two of our valued integration partners are:

Valispace logo satsearch

Valispace - the Valispace platform improves collaboration between engineers. The data-driven software integrates different tools and data into a single hub so all engineering design parameters can be worked on, in real-time, in the same place. Used by some of the most innovative space companies around the world, Valispace is a leader in smart collaboration for challenging projects.

The Valispace platform is linked to the satsearch database through a simple integration designed to enhance the capabilities and experience of engineers. Information from our global database of thousands of space products can be pushed from satsearch into Valispace projects so that engineers can use the latest information from all around the world to make the best choice for their needs - find out more here.

Valispace logo satsearch

Oakman Aerospace, Inc. - experts in modular open-system architectures (MOSA), and rapid and responsive space system designs, Oakman Aerospace, Inc. help forward-thinking companies bring space concepts to life.

We are currently developing a new partnership with Oakman Aerospace, Inc. to integrate supply chain into early-stage concept design in order to improve assembly, integration, and test (AIT). By linking our extensive database of space technology with Oakman’s MOSA ACORN product we also hope to develop a universal standard that will support MBSE in space and improve all aspects of mission design and implementation.

MBSE is today in use in several areas of the space industry to improve the system-level design of new missions and technology. Here are a few examples:

The e.Deorbit mission

The European Space Agency (ESA) is engaged in a large project called e.Deorbit which is addressing the growing issue of space debris.

e.Deorbit is a demonstrator mission that will find, capture and remove a derelict ESA satellite from orbit so it can burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere upon re-entry. The ultimate aim is to develop new ways to actively find and remove debris from Earth’s orbit.

e.Deorbit mission
(Image credit: ESA)

The project team and contractors have made use of MBSE at several stages of the mission including modelling the physical architecture, tracking verification methods, and establishing ‘single truth’ data exchange at a system level.

You can read more about the benefits and challenges that this approach has brought to the project, as well as how this intensive use of MBSE is opening up new opportunities at ESA and beyond, in this article.

CubeSat technology and mission design

With more and more modular components and sub-systems available, from thrusters to reaction wheels, CubeSat design is another area where MBSE approaches are adding value.

Systems engineers are tasked with understanding and testing a greater range of technology than ever, as well as assessing the potential for applications that were unthinkable even a decade or two ago.

As mentioned above, the growth of the global industry is also placing demands on teams to work together effectively from multiple locations around the world.

All of these changes are resulting in the need to more efficiently consider a wider range of equipment and operational mission scenarios, and approaches such as MBSE can facilitate this.

Model image of the ISS

Architecture and space facilities

MBSE is already in widespread use in building design.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems have had a huge impact on large construction projects in recent years, simplifying collaboration between stakeholders and improving the speed and accuracy of design and testing.

New launch facilities, observatories and ground stations can benefit from MBSE, particularly when international partners are working in collaboration.

Purpose-built satellite manufacturing factories are also being developed for high volume orders and constellation development, and these designs may also use MBSE.

Finally, emerging plans to build permanent facilities on the Moon and Mars will also need to rigorously designed and tested, and are another area in which MBSE may have a role.

NASA Moon base concept

In conclusion

MBSE clearly has a lot to offer in the space sector and is being used in a variety of projects around the world.

Issues of interoperability, data security, IP protection and the effective use of non-digital assets do pose challenges and may limit its use in certain areas.

However, the potential benefits that MBSE approaches can bring to a complex project make it worthy of assessment in relevant areas and it will be really interesting to see what common uses emerge in the coming years.

This post has just given a brief overview of the use of MBSE in space and there are many more considerations and examples that can be discussed. If you have expertise in this area and would like to share your insights, feedback or contribute a comment to this article, then please contact Hywel Curtis at [email protected] today to discuss.

Tools and resources

Finally, if you are interested in exploring the world of MBSE further, the following links give more detailed information on concepts and popular tools: