Some operators of low-Earth orbit satellites are bracing for a storm of debris. Russia’s demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon last November, which destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite, left thousands of tracked pieces of debris and many more too small to track.
Much of that debris remains in orbits similar to the satellite, with an inclination of 82.3 degrees. That means the debris could fly headlong into satellites operating in sun-synchronous orbits with slopes of 97 degrees.
“If they’re in sync, you’ve got the perfect storm: They’re in the same orbital plane but spinning in opposite directions and crossing each other twice in each orbit, time after time,” said Dan Oltrogge, director of integrated operations and research at COMSPOC. They create waves of close approaches, or conjunctions, called “squalls” by the company, that can last for several days before the orbits drift apart.
The worst conjunctions are forecast for the first week of April, when the ASAT debris encounters several groups of Dove imaging cubes operated by Planet and satellites operated by Satellogic, Spire and Swarm. The number of conjunctions will approach 50,000 per day in that time, compared to a background level of approximately 15,000 per day. Fortunately, because many of those satellites are cubes, the risk of collisions won’t increase as dramatically.
What’s remarkable about this analysis, other than the existence of the gusts themselves, is that it was done by a private company, COMSPOC, and not the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron or the Office of Space Commerce. Oltrogge said COMSPOC has met with Planet and others, including NASA and the Space Force, about his assessment.
The COMSPOC analysis is part of a trend of growing private sector capabilities to track objects and warn of potential conjunctions. LeoLabs operates a network of radars to track objects in LEO, while ExoAnalytics and Numerica operate telescopes to monitor satellites in geostationary orbit. NorthStar Earth and Space plans a satellite constellation to track satellites from Earth orbit. Startups like Kayhan Space and Neuraspace use different data sources to more accurately estimate potential collisions.
A WAZE APP FOR SPACE
The newest entrant in the commercial space traffic management industry is Privateer. Based in Maui, Hawaii, the company had kept a low profile, but attracted a lot of attention from one of its founders: Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak.
Privateer emerged from stealth on March 1 with its first product: a visualization tool called Wayfinder that combined data from a variety of sources, including data from US Space Command and provided directly by satellite operators.
Wayfinder is based on ASTRIAGraph, developed by Moriba Jah, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and also Privateer’s chief scientist. “It’s a redesign of ASTRIAGraph,” he said in an interview. “ASTRIAGraph will always exist, but this is going to be a branch of that.”
He described Wayfinder as a demonstration of other space traffic management capabilities Privateer can offer. “Wayfinder is going to be this platform, a kind of Waze app, on which people can build different services,” he said. An example is adding information about the characteristics of objects, in addition to their orbits, which would be valuable to companies planning satellite maintenance or debris removal services.
One such new product is a collision alert service that Alex Fielding, chief executive of Privateer, calls Relssek, or “Kessler” spelled backwards: a play on the Kessler syndrome of runaway growth of orbital debris. That will combine catalogs with data from satellite operators themselves or other sources to provide more accurate predictions of conjunctions. “We will use the resources of everyone who is already there,” he said.
That may include its own satellites. Privateer is working on a three-unit cube called Pono-1 that will be launched later this year with 42 sensors to collect situational awareness data in space. Fielding said the company is considering using more sensors as hosted payloads on other companies’ satellites rather than their own. “We really don’t want to create more things in space.”
GOVERNMENT PARTNERSHIPS WITH THE INDUSTRY AT STM
As businesses accelerate, development of government solutions is slow. NOAA, which is home to the Office of Space Commerce, gave its first public demonstration in February of the open architecture data repository (OADR) it is developing to host situational awareness data in space. But officials said it will not be ready to enter service and take over the civilian space traffic responsibilities assigned to the Department of Commerce in Space Policy Directive 3 in 2018, until 2024.
That mismatch between the public and private sectors is prompting calls to rethink their respective roles. That includes, some argue, a greater role for companies in shaping space traffic management as well as developing standards and regulations for safe working in increasingly crowded jobs.
“I’m really concerned that we’re not doing enough, we’re not going here fast enough,” said Kevin O’Connell, former director of the Office of Space Commerce. “How do we remain agile and adaptive? It is largely due to the efforts of the private sector.”
Speaking at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in February, O’Connell said he supports Space Policy Directive 3, the 2018 policy that assigned responsibilities for civilian space traffic to the Commerce Department, which houses the office he once headed, but has scaled down. of the problem means that the agency needs to work more closely with those capacities of the private sector.
“It’s not government versus private sector. That’s a silly way to think about it,” he said. “Where we need speed and innovation, we need to leverage the private sector.”
How that collaboration will work in practice, however, is still a work in progress. SPD-3 envisioned that the Department of Commerce would work with both commercial and international partners on its civilian STM system, incorporating their space situational awareness data into the OADR to improve the accuracy of conjunction predictions.
NOAA filed a request for information (RFI) in February, seeking details on commercial data to be included in the OADR. That request included an emphasis on data from assets in the Southern Hemisphere and the ability to track “high-priority objects” in the short term.
That RFI is the beginning of NOAA’s efforts to partner with the private sector on space traffic management. Stephen Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said the FAA conference will host workshops and other meetings with companies. “You can see where we are going and where we can learn and improve,” he said.
SPD-3 envisioned that Commerce would provide a basic level of space traffic management services for free. Businesses could then provide more advanced services using data from the OADR and other sources.
Volz confirmed that he expected the Office of Space Commerce to provide “a basic package” of such services. “We don’t see that as the role of NOAA or the DoC to provide everything to everyone, but to provide a certain minimum and growing capacity standard that everyone can rely on.”
However, it is not clear what the difference is between basic and advanced. O’Connell cautioned that quantifying that can be difficult, which could affect the business plans of companies looking to offer such services. It’s in the interest of the United States’ global leadership to make some space security data freely available to everyone, he said, but “we don’t want to stand in the way of companies that want to go beyond that.”
“THE CLOCK IS TICKING”
The same interactions between the public and private sectors apply to regulatory issues. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating how to best evaluate the collision risk of new satellite constellations, including evaluating the overall risk of those systems to the overall orbital environment, rather than looking at the risks of individual systems.
“One of the things we’re advocating for is an understanding of what the limits are to sustainability, quantitatively, on a global basis, because it’s a globally shared resource,” said Mark Dankberg, executive chairman of Viasat, who supports the efforts of the FCC supports. †
But who does that quantitative assessment? “I think a government organization in the US should be able to do that. So far no one has stepped forward,” he said.
One approach would be for the FCC to partner with private or non-profit organizations with expertise in space sustainability, such as The Aerospace Corporation. Another option is the Space Sustainability Rating, a scale modeled after the LEED building rating system to measure how well satellite systems follow best practices for space sustainability. A consortium organized by the World Economic Forum developed the rating system, which is managed by the Swiss university EPFL.
“One of the things you can imagine is that a licensing authority would want a rating. They can collect a fee from an applicant and then hand that fee over to someone like EPFL and ask them to provide an assessment,” Dankberg said. That would bypass companies that pay EPFL directly for sustainability assessments, giving rise to conflicts of interest.
There is no lack of expertise in the FCC to address this issue, he argued. “I think it lacks the will to deal with it,” he said, especially among FCC leaders. “I think it opened a can of worms that are not as appetizing on the eighth floor as they are in the satellite office.”
Meanwhile, low-Earth orbit is becoming increasingly crowded and dangerous, as the recent conjunctures identified by COMSPOC have shown, even as companies plan new constellations, commercial space stations and other emerging space applications.
“A lot of people think that improving conjunction analysis is the end game. No, it’s the starting game for a whole new set of space security services to enable all of these exciting things,” O’Connell said, referring to those new markets. “We’re going to need to speed up the many different things we’re doing, and leveraging the private sector is a critical tool to do that. The clock is ticking.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.