How Tech Innovations Can Support a More Sustainable Space Environment
On the tail end of 2021, investments in technology to keep space functional, minimize harmful debris, and extend the life of satellites, are booming. But can the satellite industry innovate fast enough to keep the pulse strong?
Aeronautical engineer Austin Link entered his post-graduate career amid the initial SpaceX Falcon 9 launches, dreaming about a future on orbit where, as he puts it, “we could sail the stars, and explore new things and provide value to humanity.”
A little more than a decade later, commercial space is booming with possibilities. And while Link isn’t sailing the stars — at least not yet, literally — he is fulfilling his dream to provide value to humanity through his two-year-old start-up venture Starfish Space.
The Kent, Wash., company, which he cofounded with engineer and former Blue Origin colleague Trevor Bennett, secured $7 million in Series A funding in September to build a prototype of the Otter space tug, a versatile satellite servicing vehicle that will provide life extension and end-of-life services for satellites in Geostationary Orbit (GEO). The goal, says Link, is to ensure satellites leave behind as little footprint as possible, and don’t add to the estimated 6,000 tons of space debris circulating in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
“That’s important right now because five times as many satellites will be launched in the 2020s as all of human history,” says Link. “That changes the game, in that space debris is no longer just a nuisance or a good Sandra Bullock movie. It’s really a threat to these constellations we’ve put in this orbit.”
Today, as commercialization picks up while Blue Origin and SpaceX send ordinary citizens past the thin blue lines of Earth’s atmosphere, Starfish Space is part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who see space sustainability as a necessity of existence.
Meanwhile, legacy space and satellite enterprises have upped their commitments to sustainability through both investments and innovations in the areas of space debris removal, space situational awareness, and space traffic management. These range from the rollout of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV), which have provided refueling services for Intelsat GEO satellites, to the endeavors of communications leaders like OneWeb, which recently installed Astroscale’s next-generation ferromagnetic docking plate to its satellites to enable more efficient servicing.
In one of the most telling signs of sustainability’s relevance in the new space economy, the Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS), an industry organization funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has grown from a six-member organization to 51 in the span of three and a half years.
“Space sustainability is a holistic endeavor that involves multiple companies, multiple countries,” says Chris Blackerby, group COO of Astroscale, which launched in 2013 with a focus on space debris removal and has expanded its business to on-orbit servicing solutions. “Just like we have road traffic monitors, and roadside services like the AAA in the United States removing vehicles on our highways, we need to have a similar set of parameters and services in space.”
There are still many uncertainties around the governance of space-traffic management activities, and whether industry coalitions can agree on standards for responsible space development. But while these questions linger, organizations in the business of space sustainability say they’re mostly optimistic that today’s innovations will ensure utopian visions of New Space materialize, and that connectivity on Earth isn’t compromised by free-floating debris.
Preventive Care for Good Space Health
Within 10 years, satellite manufacturing and launch order volumes are projected to reach 24,700, according to a July 2021 report by satellite market research firm NSR.
That’s why companies like LeoLabs are focusing on prevention — specifically, on helping organizations launching satellites protect their million-dollar space assets and improve decision-making.
The six-year-old company, a venture-funded spinout of SRI International, recently raised $65 million in Series B funding to expand its LEO mapping and space situational awareness services. The organization uses radar technologies and predictive analytics to monitor orbital debris and assess the risk of collision. Current customer partners include SpaceX, which uses LeoLabs’ services to track its newly launched satellites, as well as Earth Observation (EO) organizations Maxar, Planet, Spire, as well as government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“There have always been hurricanes, going back millions of years. Because we have so many buildings and structures on the coastline, we care a lot about hurricanes — and it’s the same in space, where collisions wreck the value of infrastructure,” Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs co-founder and CEO, tells Via Satellite. “A lot of people talk about these mega-constellations as if they’re causing the problem. But they’re not the cause of the problem — they’re the victim of the environment they have to operate in. If you’re launching into space, you’re more likely to be hit by debris launched decades ago that you are by a satellite in one of these [new] constellations.”
The organization’s global network of ground infrastructure, including ground-based phased array radar systems in Alaska, Texas, New Zealand, and Costa Rica, generates data feeds and real-time alerts that inform decision-making, such as whether to move a satellite in another direction to avoid collision. It’s not unlike clinical-decision support technologies used by hospital physicians to assess the risks of performing a complex medical procedure.
“We’re talking about predicting a close approach,” says Ceperley. “We’re talking about tens of feet of difference, like ‘You’re going to pass 50 feet apart after you’ve completed 100 more laps around the earth.’ We have to be able to predict days into the future to provide an effective service.”
Boosting the Life of Legacy Investments
While protecting satellites in LEO is foundational to the notion of space sustainability, so is ensuring existing legacy investments are as healthy as possible.
That’s why in June 2020, Astroscale acquired Effective Space solutions, an Israeli company focused on the servicing, repairing, and life extension of GEO satellites. The financial benefits of servicing are clear: Launching satellites costs money, and through satellite launch extension services, an operator can remain flexible as it rolls out new market offerings and can hold onto its spectrum longer.
“This underpins everything we’re doing,” says Blackerby. “We’re able to move from a throwaway culture of single-use space assets that regularly increases risk and decreases ROI in orbit to a servicing culture that benefits all space actors and the overall orbital environment. The space sector must grow on a foundation of sustainable orbital infrastructure and on-orbit servicing is at the center of that infrastructure.”
Clearing up the Mess
The business of clearing junk — while not as sexy as other missions — is even more essential than it was eight years ago, when Astroscale launched. Space junk is a growing threat, as evidenced by incidents such as the recent debris-induced damage of the International Space Station’s robotic arm.
As such, the market for space debris monitoring and removal market is projected to grow by $610 million between 2020 and 2024, according to a report by Technavio.
“It’s still a low-probability event that we’ll have an accident today or tomorrow or next week, but the impact of an event that does happen will become significant,” says Blackerby.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), which tracks debris objects through its Space Surveillance and Tracking networks, more than 22,000 objects are currently floating around space as of January 2019, but the number could double. Events such as Russia's surprise
Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon test this month, which resulted in an explosion of debris, have amplified the problem.
Nevertheless, Blackerby seems encouraged by some of the milestones his organization and others have achieved. For example: In August, the company completed a demonstration of its ELSA-d (End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration) using a magnetic capture system to quickly capture a client spacecraft after releasing it.
During the release-and-capture period, Astroscale’s Mission Operations and Ground Segment teams checked out and calibrated the rendezvous sensors and verified relevant ground system infrastructure and operational procedures. In the coming months, the organization is preparing for a more complex “capture without tumbling” demonstration, in which the client will be separated to a greater distance.
Meanwhile, Swiss start-up ClearSpace, a private company formed in 2018, recently signed a debris removal contract with the European Space Agency to help capture and deorbit a 100-kilogram piece of an Arianespace Vega rocket left in orbit in 2013. The ClearSpace 1.0 mission, scheduled for 2025, will attempt to use a spacecraft equipped with four robotic arms to capture the debris, and drag it into Earth’s atmosphere.
“Our first mission will remove a piece of debris which was not designed for capture, is uncontrolled, and tumbling,” says Tim Maclay, ClearSpace CTO. “These characteristics present a number of unique challenges that require the development of particularly robust solutions for rendezvous, proximity operations, and robotic capture. These elements will then form a solid foundation for addressing a wide variety of services in the future — such as inspection, disposal, mission extension, and repair — for both government and commercial customers.”
Rules of the Road
Given the uptick in space traffic, coupled with sustainability and debris removal missions, questions as to who has the responsibility to manage space traffic loom larger. But while progress with innovation and rulemaking is slower than some might desire, it is still being made.
As Politico reported in May, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the world’s largest aerospace technical society, is stepping up its efforts to ensure the commercial air traffic system is coordinated with expanding space traffic. The organization reportedly established a committee to consider the integration between space traffic management and air management, and to establish (at least in the U.S.), who is responsible for overseeing space debris/space traffic management.
And in June 2021, the European Space Agency announced plans to roll out a space sustainability rating system, which will score space operators on the sustainability of their missions, to increase transparency and recognize responsible behavior.
Meanwhile, the Space Data Association (SDA) is working alongside space situational awareness software company Comspoc to provide governments in the U.S. and Europe with the understanding and tools they need to develop their own space traffic management capabilities, which will ultimately improve space safety for all operators.
“We are continually looking at ways to improve our systems and processes, as well as driving change within the industry as a whole,” says Pascal Wauthier, SDA chairman and executive director.
The SDA also worked with Comspoc to conduct a study to demonstrate the importance of fusing different measurements data and satellite information to improve the accuracy of alerts and collision warnings.
“As the use of space increases, so does the complexity of aggregating the data available,” says Wauthier. “The existing data-sharing solutions certainly reduce the risks associated with in-orbit collisions. However, with the number of satellites increasing, there is a distinct need for development. Beyond advances in systems, we also must review what data we are collecting to support effective data fusion. Could we share information regarding maneuverability? Do we know a satellite’s future movements? Data sharing the relevant information is critical.”
“We also feel that governments have a responsibility for space traffic management,” he continues. “The use of space and satcom is critical to many aspects in day-to-day life, and there must be a coordinated approach to its management. Input from governments would ensure that all space users are adhering to standards to prevent in-orbit events which could have a detrimental effect on all space users.” VS
Marisa Torrieri is a freelance writer for Via Satellite.