Episode 43 of the Space Industry podcast is a discussion with Stefan Frey, Co-founder of satsearch member Vyoma, on space situational awareness (SSA).
Episode show notes
Vyoma is a space debris monitoring company, based in Germany, developing solutions designed to ensure safe passage through space.
In this episode we discuss the background, technologies, motivations for, and current state of the space situational awareness sector. We cover:
- An overview of the current space debris environment in LEO, MEO and GEO
- The pros and cons of space-based and ground-based Space Situational Awareness (SSA) sensors and systems
- How fast and accurate satellite operator threat assessment notices can be
- How space assets can be maneuvered to avoid collisions
- SSA insights and recommendations for satellite developers, mission operators, and the insurance industry
You can find out more about Vyoma here on their satsearch supplier hub.
The portfolio of Vyoma
The Vyoma Conjunction Assessment Service is designed to support operators managing satellites, whether single systems or large constellations.
In combination with the company’s Orbit Determination Service, in which dedicated tracking campaigns are run to update Conjunction Data Messages (CDMs), timely and accurate assessments can be provided to take informed decisions.
This multi-level service is designed to enable the screening of maneuvers against the chaser and the entire catalog of objects.
The Vyoma Orbit Determination Service helps obtain orbital information of space objects of interest in a timely and transparent manner.
The service is based on dedicated tracking campaigns executed through the Vyoma sensor network, consisting of globally distributed telescopes covering all longitudes and orbital regimes from LEO through GEO.
Next to providing an accurate estimate of the orbit itself – e.g., following orbit insertion, after a maneuver, or simply during normal operations, this service also provides a propagated trajectory as well as the uncertainty evolution of the object in the form of an Orbit Ephemeris Message (OEM).
Please note that while we have endeavoured to produce a transcript that matches the audio as closely as possible, there may be slight differences in the text below. If you would like anything in this transcript clarified, or have any other questions or comments, please contact us today.
[00:00:00] Hywel: Hello everybody. I’m your host Hywel Curtis. And I’d like to welcome you to the Space Industry by satsearch, where we share stories about the companies taking us into orbit. In this podcast, we delve into the opinions and expertise of the people behind the commercial space organizations of today who could become the household names of tomorrow.
Before we get started with the episode, remember, you can find out more information about the suppliers, products, and innovations that are mentioned in this discussion on the global marketplace for space at satsearch.com.
Hello everybody and welcome to today’s episode of the Space Industry Podcast. I’m joined today by Stefan Frey, Co-Founder of a satsearch member company, Vyoma. Vyoma is a European company that’s developing solutions to protect space assets. This is a really interesting and an increasingly important topic in the industry and I’m quite excited to get into the detail of this with Stefan today. Specifically, we’re going to discuss the current state of the space situational awareness domain. But before we get into the questions, Hi Stefan. Thank you very much for being here today.
[00:01:02] Stefan: Hi, Hywel. Thank you very much for having me.
[00:01:04] Hywel: Great. No problem. Okay, so as I mentioned, an increasingly important topic that a lot of people are focusing on, and I wonder if first you could just ground us by giving a brief overview of the current space debris environment in the different orbits. If we just look at LEO, MEO, GEO, Where do you see most of the threat, actually the real threat emerging for satellite operators potentially?
[00:01:26] Stefan: All right. So assuming that your listeners already know what LEO, MEO, GEO means I’m just going take it from there.
[00:01:31] Hywel Curtis: I hope so 😊.
[00:01:33] Stefan: All right. So most of the objects that we currently see up there are actually in the lower earth orbit, so in the LEO region. And it’s becoming, Increasingly congested, I’m making satellite operations around the altitudes of 500 to 800 kilometers, really increasingly dangerous as well, and that means that satellites there actually have to perform regular collision avoidance maneuvers just to make sure that their assets remain safe.
If we go up a bit farther to MEO and GEO, so MEO is where GNSS satellites are, and then GEO is the point in the orbit that doesn’t move with respect to the earth surface. It’s not so congested yet, even though, especially for GEO we have to say that there are a lot of objects already out there. And it’s of course because of it, the fact that it doesn’t move with respect to the earth is very precious orbit, so we have to take special care there as well.
However, I think as respect to LEO, it seems to us, working at the European Space Agency actually looking into how the different actors in space behave with respect to this space debris mitigation guidelines is that in GEO actually, they’re behaving quite well because they know that they have to protect their own slots. While in LEO it seems to me personally, it’s more of tragedy of the common space.
MEO, as the last point, I think the danger there is basically the GTO so the crossing orbits, which are today not well observed, and we don’t know very well where they are actually.
[00:03:10] Hywel: Okay. Interesting, interesting. Yes, obviously the incentives that different companies are actually under to, to look after the systems and look after the debris change dramatically with the size of the systems the orbits I say good overview. Thank you.
And then in, in terms of tracking this, these assets, what sort of the different space based and ground based sensors or systems are used or of interest for space situational awareness and what kind of resolutions are needed or can be provided in order to identify space debris?
[00:03:41] Stefan: Right. So in terms of space based observational capabilities, there is really not that much today. So I’m just going to focus on the ground based solutions that are out there right now. And I think the most prevalent in terms of technology are radar and optical, especially when it comes to cataloguing objects. There are other technologies such as laser ranging however you need to already know where the objects is to be able to actually point your laser in the right direction.
Most of the data that, that everyone especially yeah everywhere, but also here in Europe is getting access to, is actually coming from US Spacecom it’s an American connection to the US military actually. So they have a very large ground based radar, but also optical network. So they’re observing objects in LEO, MEO and GEO, and they’re providing this kind of information in the form of TS. So tool line elements, but also special EEM especially perturbation EEM.
So this is a very great source for everyone working in the industry to understand what’s the situation up there. However, we have to mention here that they’re tracking roughly 45,000 objects and that based on or an existing 1 million objects that are up there right now. So we, as humanity, basically we see less than 5% of the dangerous objects that are actually threatening our satellites. And this is something that we would like to change at Vyoma.
In terms of revolution you were asking as well. It always depends for radar especially depends on the energy you put into the radars.
Because as you might know, there is the radar equation that means the more energy you put in the more signal you’ll get back. But the problem is that this signal gets weaker with distance and it gets weaker very fast. And that’s not only distance, but also the size of the objects that you’re looking at.
So right now the US-based column catalog is more or less tracking objects that are 10 centimeters and larger. There are radars that are capable of going lower. I want to mention here, TIRA in Germany – they can see centimeter level objects as well. However, they really have to put in a lot of energy. And right now in the current situations, that energy really not what you want to do. And at the same time, it also burns your instruments. So the wear and tear of putting through so much energy is actually making it very costly for operations.
[00:06:00] Hywel: Excellent. Are there any other sort of pros and cons for the different types of sensors and systems used?
[00:06:06] Stefan: Yes. So if you’re talking, if you’re comparing, of course, ground based to space based, I think one big pro for ground based obviously is maintainability, right?
So if something is broken there is no issue and you just fix it. On top of that, you have energy available on ground as well. You have generally a lot of heritage that is has been around for many decades. But if you look at the cons from radar, for example, from ground based is as I said, as I mentioned before, it’s distance to the targets, right?
The farther away is the less signal you’ll obtain. So this is something that’s, especially if it’s passing exactly above you, that’s easy to catch, right? But if it’s somewhat far away, you’re looking at it at a lower elevation angle, it’ll already get much harder to catch it. If you look at optical ground based telescopes, they are very simple to set up.
They’re quite cheap, and they can really provide the data as well in, in no time because they’re connected to the internet or connected to a computer, which is of course another con if you’re looking at space based, because there, you really need to make sure that you have inter satellite link which is doable, which is but you have to make sure, and this is what we are doing, that you do a lot of onboard processing already, right? So you’re not going to be able to download all the images in, in full resolution. But what we can do is we actually reduce those images down to just the small parts of interest for us.
So really actually that’s image coordinates of where the objects are that we see plus some coordinates of stars as well. I also want to mention some pros of being space based, especially for optical. Of course is to have a constant sun illumination angle, right? Is this something that you don’t have on when you’re on ground.
You’re also struggling with weather, atmosphere, so there’s a lot of time actually your telescope is not going to be running while in space. We can really achieve a near 100% duty cycle. So what does that mean? Actually observing all the time. And top of that we don’t have flight pollution. So we can achieve a very high sensitivity when we are in space.
[00:08:03] Hywel: Excellent. Okay, that makes sense. You touched briefly on the work that you guys are carrying out at Vyoma in the space situational awareness market today.
You also mentioned earlier that there is a volume of data or sources of data available, and I believe there is plenty that can be accessed for free, although, all be it, for a limited number of objects compared to what is actually up there. So within that environment, yeah, could you explain a little bit more about where Vyoma sits and what work you do and plan to do?
[00:08:33] Stefan: Yep, absolutely. So indeed one thing is, going from 45,000 objects to actually seeing and warning operators to, to 1 million objects.
But this is not the only, Yeah, the only thing we’re working on. Basically because what we want to achieve as well is help satellite operators avoiding unnecessary maneuvers.
So how do we do that? We do that by observing objects more often. That is currently being done. So shrinking the uncertainty about the location where they’re, cause every time you observe them, again, you can shrink the uncertainty of where they’re Plus I also want to mention here that we have a very good understanding of the environment where satellites are flying. So we have near real time calibrated atmospheric density models.
What does that mean? We’re actually taking observations from satellites that already in orbit and feed those into our models to get a better understanding of the environment they’re flying in.
And all of this really helps us predicting better where objects are going to be. In terms of avoiding unnecessary maneuvers, that basically really means that we can tell us that operators with our improved data and our improved predictions that they actually don’t have to maneuver while maybe with previous available information they would have to perform this costly maneuver.
And why are these maneuvers so costly? This is simply because you have to basically turn down your services that you usually provide during the time of doing the maneuver. And of course you have to involve the lot of specialist performing. Anyway, though the SSA part for us at Vyoma, is really only the foundation.
For our automation solutions. So our vision really is to shrink operation centers to the tip of your finger. Basically make sure that you can operate your satellite from a tower.
[00:10:13] Hywel: I see. And to go back to the maneuver, monitoring and the, when you need to give notifications and things, how much of a heads up can you potentially give satellite operators about a potential threat to an asset? And how accurate do you believe your assessments can?
[00:10:28] Stefan: So we can give a heads up or an early warning already weeks before an incident. Yeah. But indeed this is not necessarily useful because of course uncertainty grow over time. I think what is much more important actually is reducing the time of still obtaining information before taking decision to, to do the maneuver. And this is where our solution comes in as well. Cause we’re screening all the objects, couple of times per day basically. So we can first of all predict when we can make an update. So giving operators a heads up when the information, next information data point will come in.
Plus we don’t have related issues, right? So this is a very high reliability on providing this data, basically. So the idea is to provide a data point very shortly before the actual time of predicted collision, right? And then give operators the possibility to wait as long as possible to take the decision to do the maneuver. Because in most cases, there is actually no maneuver required, right?
Simply once you have better data you actually know that it’s going to miss your satellite just to give you one more data point here. Today’s satellite operators are moving out of the way if the collision risk is higher than one in 10,000, right? And what really means in a very simplified way, is that 9,999 out of these 10,000 maneuvers are actually not required.
[00:11:50] Hywel: Right, that’s an enormous amount. I’m very surprised at that. But yeah, just the nature of the lack of information ac well accuracy that we have in the domain. So that’s interesting. Now I know that there’s a number of teams working on different aspects of space situational awareness. I was at the IAC in Paris last week and there were several teams, exhibiting there.
So there’s obviously a growing, there’s a growing demand because of the amount of objects up there, but there’s growth on the supply side as well, which is from a marketplace perspective, which is where we are at satsearch, this is great to see, but from, your perspective at view, do you see a need for greater coordination within this community to, mature SSA systems and make it a more kind of trusted area of the space industry?
[00:12:33] Stefan: Now there is no doubt that bundling together observation data, using observation data from different places will make any product more accurate, also reliable reliable. Of course, on top of that, we can also validate each other solution, which I think is something that is currently lacking cause everyone is just relying one single source of truth.
Yes, indeed. There is no doubt that we have to collaborate with each other. I don’t know exactly in terms of coordination. That sounds a bit like it’s something from top down, which I don’t think is required basically because we strongly believe that all the solutions in the end will be somewhat distributed, making them much more reliable also in terms of, if one system stops working all of a sudden basically. So we really do believe in a distributed system.
On top of that, I think what’s really cool about our industry in space in general is that we’re, we’re all driven by a sense of urgency of solving this problem, right? So it’s much, competitiveness. I think it’s much more collaboration that is intrinsic to everyone working in this domain.
[00:13:33] Hywel: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think the nature of what the satellite operator is trying to achieve by using your data, move a system. So that there is an impact is by nature collaborative because you’re moving it out of the way of space debris or in other existing satellite, you’re trying not to create further debris that would damage other companies who maybe your competitors’ systems, yeah, by nature it’s a safety for all.
[00:13:58] Stefan: Yeah. Help each other to help yourself, right?
[00:13:59] Hywel Curtis: Yeah, absolutely. And on that are there are such satellite operators, spacecraft operators, able to use threat assessments to move their assets when they don’t have propulsion systems on board who can maneuver or they’ve run out of propellant or the propulsion system isn’t operated at the moment.
And how long might they have to act? You mentioned the times you give them before a potential conjunction, but that would vary by orbit as well, I’m guessing?
[00:14:26] Stefan: That’s correct. Yeah. So what they can perform are differential drag maneuvers. What does that really mean? So they can rotate their satellite to achieve a different area to mass ratio because there is still a bit of atmospheric drag left where most satellites are flying right now.
So if you change your, the area that is actually being perpendicular to your to your velocity factor, then you can really change the resistance and you can actually slightly change the orbit towards your normal operations, your normal attitude that you would have. Of course it depends a lot on the shape factor of the satellite.
Or the sides very long as compared to the front. And as you say, correctly on the altitude of the orbit, cause the lower you fly the more drag effects will be there on your orbit. But indeed so significant changes can be achieved. I think what’s important here again it’s not so much how early you have to do it, but how well can you predict where it’s going be, right?
So if you can say we’re fine with missing an object by 10 meters, then of course you can, you can wait really long until before it happens. But if you say, Okay, we make sure we miss it by 300 metres of course you will have to start quite early. It’s actually a similar problem for satellites that have electric propulsion available only.
They also have to make sure that they start thinking hours, maybe even days before closest approach itself.
[00:15:45] Hywel: That’s very interesting. And are there any recommendations that you would like to give satellite builders from, from the awareness of getting ready for space situational awareness and being able to carry out the right maneuvers and understand the data that you are being provided and things.
Is there anything, any advice you’d like to give them in the early stages of a mission?
[00:16:03] Stefan: Do consider space debris and related additional requirements very early in the process. Of course, the later you start trying to adapt the design to, to these kind of risks, which are very real the more expansive it will get for you.
Of course. Also I think ESA is actually going towards index and index that, tells your mission on what’s the footprint that you have on the space environment, right? That’s taking you to account the risk of colliding, but also the risk of having an explosion onboard, basically.
So if your payload permits, really try to avoid the most congested regions, right? Just go somewhere where the risk of collision is much smaller.
That can be just, going to, to maybe 1000 kilometers instead of going to six, 600 kilometers altitude. So if your payload allow, try to avoid the congest regions.
[00:16:49] Hywel: Okay, brilliant. So start from these assumptions. There are going to be potential for you to impact something that could, there could be debris effecting you start it don’t build a satellite, assuming it’s never going to happen then.
[00:17:00] Stefan: Right, yeah, Unfortunately. Unfortunately. Yeah. So just to give you also one more update here.
So I’m, since the dawn off the space should have been more than 500 explosion events happening in space. So this is something that. It’s really real, right? It’s collisions are much less frequent. They have been so far four confirmed collisions in space. Nevertheless it’s getting more and more risky.
[00:17:24] Hywel: Then I was also interested in how the data that, that has been collected and provided and the systems that have been developed can have an impact on the other aspects of a satellite mission and its administration. Interesting aspect of this.
So towards, the insurance for space assets. So do you see insurance industry maturing and offering schemes that spacecraft operators can adopt based on SSA assessments that could be provided and, is this industry ready for using that sort of data for transforming their operations in this way?
[00:17:55] Stefan: So it’s not going to surprise you that of course we’re talking to the big reinsurers that also have space insurances and indeed so we, what we see really is them towards really taking this problem seriously. Today, space insurance generally covers any loss of satellite in operations, in space, right?
And that can be from space every day, can be from faulty battery, from a faulty payload, whatever. And this is, I think because of two reasons is this cause a space debris is still a small part of the overall failures that you can see in space. And secondly, often it’s not clear what is the actual cause of a failure, right?
Because sometimes you just lose communication and that’s it. You don’t know exactly what happened. But with the better pool of data that we’ll have in the near future and with other modeling capabilities as well, this will change because we can predict, or we can also tell you what was really the cause of this.
So what we think or what we see the space insurance is going towards is a model where you, if you actively consider space debris and you actively perform, avoidance maneuvers and you react to space debris, your insurance payments will actually be lower. So there is a real financial incentive as well to behave behave responsibly in space.
[00:19:06] Hywel Curtis: Yeah, that, that makes sense. Think about it from the point of view of traffic in, on the roads. If you couldn’t see out the windscreen to see the other traffic, then you should pay more for insurance, I think.
[00:19:18] Stefan: So yeah, I think that’s a very accurate that’s actually a very accurate description even of space.
[00:19:24] Hywel Curtis: Great. That’s fantastic. So a final couple of questions I think just to just to get back into the technical aspects of it and the hardware software with this emerging environment on the administration side and the different combination of data systems and you mentioned the use of ground based Components and hardware.
What combination of sensors do you see in the future has the best potential to give a satellite operator, for example, a complete or a as complete as possible of a picture of their environment in which they’re working?
[00:19:55] Stefan: Indeed it will be a combination of radar and telescopes as well. Cause they give you a different set of data.
Radar generally gives you range and range rate. So how far away is the object and how is, how fast is he moving with respect to you? And telescope give you angler information of where the object is right on top of that. Radars are generally very good in spotting objects that are of metallic nature.
So they, it’ll give you More signal back. While they’re not so good in, in seeing non metallic objects on the other hand telescopes can see bright objects. That can be, even pain flakes, right? Which would not possible to be caught by radar, for example. So it’ll be definitely a combination of these two types.
I think if you want to go to even more precise or determination, you’ll also want to have access to laser ranging information. So what we are actually working on now for our second generation of satellites is because the first one is only going to carry telescope is also considering radar or lidar.
So technologies that are capable of measuring the range and the range rate. The only problem with these kind technologies is that they’re generally limited in range, while we can actually see from LEO to LEO, LEO to MEO and LEO to GEO as well with optical, this will be much harder to achieve with any kind of technology that can do range and rate in space. If we don’t have access to unlimited source of energy there.
[00:21:21] Hywel Curtis: Thank you. That’s a good summary. And finally then back to to finish on Vyoma and your, obviously your personal ambitions and excitement about the company as well. What role do you see Vyoma playing in the European space industry or global space industry moving forward? So what are you, where do you see yourself, where, what are you most excited about in the company?
[00:21:41] Stefan: I think we really see ourselves as a supporter and also an enabler of satellite operations and enabler of, the whole space industry. And we really want to do this by just making operations safer, but also by making it much more affordable.
Cause right now, go to market for new brilliant ideas of having some payloads in space, it just can take years. And it will take so much effort for people that have no experience or no network of actually being able, pulling this off. And we really want to make this much simpler by providing this kind of operation center as a service basically, right?
Satellite operations as a service, so we really contribute to the growing space economy. But also of course, while keeping this critical infrastructure safe. I think if we can do this, then we have accomplished our mission.
[00:22:29] Hywel Curtis: Fantastic. Thank you. Best of luck in accomplishing that. And that’s a great place to sum up, I think.
Thank you very much, Stefan. That was it was really great talking to you today. I think you shared some great insights on what space situational awareness actually is, why it’s important, how objects are detected, and how satellites and systems move out of the way and when they shouldn’t.
And what satellite operators need to think about from kind of day one of mission development in order to adjust for the environment in which they are going to be, hopefully operating, assuming everything else goes well. And yeah, great to, to hear about the plans the Vyoma has as well.
On behalf of, all our listeners, that’s basically podcast. Just wanted to say thank you very much for being with us here today.
[00:23:10] Stefan: Thank you, Hywel, and thank you for your work as well. I think this is super important to, spread the word and make sure that people understand the risks of satellite operations. Today. Most people don’t understand that there are services that every one of us uses daily are at risk of being lost, for good if we have a catastrophic event in space. Thanks a lot.
[00:23:30] Hywel Curtis: Oh you’re welcome. And, yeah, this is to everybody listening, this is very much an area that benefits from everybody engaging with and being involved in. Please do look into this area and see what you can find out, but what’s important to your industry your missions, your products and services.
And as always, we will share some further information on Vyoma’s work and products and services in the show notes and we can find, also find details of everything on satsearch.com and on the company’s website. And. Just wanted to say thank you very much to our listeners out there for spending time with us today. We’ll be back with you soon on the Space Industry Podcast. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Space Industry by satsearch. I hope you enjoyed today’s story about one of the companies taking us into orbit. We’ll be back soon with more in-depth behind-the-scenes insights from private space businesses. In the meantime, you can go to satsearch.com for more information on the space industry today, or find us on social media if you have any questions or comments. Stay up to date. Please subscribe to our weekly newsletter and you can also get each podcast on demand on iTunes, Spotify, the Google play store, or whichever podcast service you typically use.