Space debris is a growing issue that is driving the industry to invest in and develop a variety of new technologies to safeguard satellites and other space assets in orbit.
This article discusses the issue of space debris, the importance of Space Situational Awareness (SSA), and the automation technologies and services offered by Vyoma GmbH to support space traffic management. Vyoma is a paying participant in the satsearch membership program, with whom this article was developed.
It also provides an outlook on Vyoma’s vision to develop advanced SSA solutions, the current and future technology landscape, and the company’s efforts to contribute towards the sustainability of the European space ecosystem more generally.
The status quo in a nutshell
The satellite industry’s growth has revolutionized several global sectors, from aviation and shipping to weather forecasts and banking. However, the issue of space sustainability has been largely marginalized for decades. One of the key reasons for this is the lack of regulation and enforcement that has plagued the satellite industry since the 1960s. Moreover, insufficient levels of Space Situational Awareness (SSA) guidelines and the nonexistence of Space Traffic Management (STM) rules have led to some catastrophic accidents in orbit.
Since the Sputnik launch in 1957 the number of assets in space has grown exponentially, with many satellites remaining in orbit at the end of their lifetimes, posing a danger for both new and currently operational missions. Out of the nearly 15,000 satellites mankind has launched to orbit to date, only approximately a third are still active. Additionally, there are currently millions of pieces of space debris orbiting Earth at an average speed of 35,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) per hour. Each of them pose a significant risk to space assets, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); “Averaging speeds of 10 km/s (22,000 mph), a 1 centimeter paint fleck is capable of inflicting the same damage as a 550 pound object traveling 60 miles per hour on earth. A 10 centimeter projectile would be comparable to 7 kilograms of TNT.”
Debris poses a threat to the 5,000+ active satellites currently in orbit, which support critical modern communication, commerce, travel, security systems, and research. Today, satellite operators perform on average two collision avoidance maneuvers per satellite per year.
Each avoidance maneuver requires the satellite to stop its services for the duration of the maneuver, which can last from hours to days, ultimately leading to a loss of revenue. The debris also represents a hazard for future space infrastructure in Earth’s orbit, including servicing satellites and space stations, as objects in space can take centuries to decay into Earth’s atmosphere.
Companies such as Vyoma, an SSA solutions provider based in Germany, are developing innovative systems to help satellite operators protect their assets in Earth’s orbit and coordinate satellite traffic. To better understand Vyoma’s service offering, and its importance in the SSA domain, we take a closer look at the company’s vision in the next section.
Vyoma’s vision in the SSA domain
Vyoma is currently developing a constellation of space-based optical cameras that will track objects in real-time. The tracking data is processed into a timely, accurate, and comprehensive catalog of space objects. With its automation services, Vyoma enables operators to efficiently navigate their satellites in an increasingly crowded environment.
Increasing the completeness and accuracy of space object trajectories brings immediate benefits to satellite operators. On the one hand, it offers greater protection against collisions with objects that today cannot be accounted for, due to their small, yet potentially incapacitating size. On the other hand, higher accuracy translates into better predictions of the actual risk of collision. As such, many events that today cause collision avoidance maneuvers, due to limited access to tracking data, are actually perfectly safe and require no course corrections, ultimately saving operators from loss of revenue.
Vyoma’s vision goes beyond mitigating the threat of space debris. With its understanding of the environment and its dynamics, optimal planning of not only avoidance maneuvers but also regular operations can be achieved and automated. Within the next 5 years, Vyoma will enable satellites to be fully aware of their surroundings, and to autonomously take actionable decisions that support their mission goals, all while considering and negotiating with other active space users.
Today, Vyoma provides SSA services using a global network of ground-based sensors, providing satellite operators access to exclusive observation data. This network will be extended with space-based sensors in the near future, to make highly accurate trajectory predictions.
Protecting space assets from operational risks is becoming increasingly important as the industry grows. With the first paying customers onboarded, Vyoma is targeting a variety of global satellite operators, space reinsurers, defense organizations, and governments across the world. Next, we take a closer look at the company’s specific solutions.
Space Situational Awareness solutions – tracking perils
Vyoma’s current network of ground-based sensors can track space objects with sizes of about 30 cm or larger. As the company continues to invest in advanced space-based solutions, it aims to achieve coverage down to 1 cm objects, which can still cause irreparable damage to satellites. Hence, Vyoma’s catalog will exceed the numbers of objects covered in existing catalogs by an order of magnitude.
As Vyoma strengthens its data-generation capabilities, it also plans to build a portfolio of services to offer customers more options to meet their mission requirements. In the list below are the key current and planned services offered by Vyoma to bring greater agility to the SSA domain:
1. On-demand tracking – This service is designed to provide customers with tracking data of space objects of interest, processed from images and other data taken from a global network of sensors (currently ground-based and in the future, space-based). The raw data is also made available to customers on request.
The service – which is fully operational – is geared towards users that want to better understand the domain in which satellites are operating, and to characterize the intent of satellites.
2. Orbit determination – Detecting the location of, and providing precise data on, objects in space is essential for operators to take timely action in response to debris threats. Vyoma’s Orbit Determination Service provides Orbit Data Messages (ODMs) containing the propagated mean state and covariance for 7 to 14 days into the future.
This service is useful for updating information of the objects involved in conjunction events and for rapidly obtaining an initial state of a satellite’s orbit following orbital insertion or a performed maneuver. Today, Vyoma provides ODMs on a per-request basis, and the service will be fully integrated into the On-Demand Tracking service by Q2 2023.
3. Collision avoidance: The growth in satellite constellation deployment has increased the probability of collisions. To meet the rising demand for assessing conjunction events Vyoma’s Collision Avoidance service is specially designed for operators of satellite constellations but is equally relevant for those operating single satellites.
The service is segmented into three levels, of which the Monitor service is free of charge:
- Monitor: Browse through listings and visualization of third-party and Vyoma CDMs, giving an immediate overview of the status of one or multiple satellites; Or screen your trajectories against secondary object to obtain more accurate collision probabilities.
- Plan: Get optimal manoeuvre recommendations at a click of a button; Or validate your own operator ephemerides against the entire catalogue in a few seconds only, such that you can confidently execute your manoeuvres
- Save: Obtain dedicated tracking campaigns to update the chaser trajectories for each high-risk event, resulting in a newly issued CDM. With independent and exclusive data, unnecessary manoeuvres can be avoided.
The basic level of the Collision Avoidance Service is operational, with the subsequent levels being gradually introduced over the coming months up to being fully operational in Q3 2023.
Looking ahead, to safer orbits
Currently, Europe largely depends on the United States Space Force 18th Space Defence Squadron (18 SDS) to obtain orbital information about debris objects. Hence, there is significant interest in Europe to enhance data sovereignty and become less reliant on non-EU data.
Both the European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) have expressed an interest in deploying a European-led satellite constellation dedicated to debris tracking and orbit determination. Vyoma, with its head-start in this field, aims to be a major stakeholder in making this vision a reality.
Ultimately, Vyoma intends to support Europe in establishing itself at the forefront of space traffic management. Its data and services will advance the strengthening of Europe’s data sovereignty, safeguarding satellites, and contribute to the future of both the space economy and the setting of new standards for improved policymaking.
Unleashing the power of automated operations for a sustainable world
In a fast-changing world, we need expert and dynamic teams that can pave the way in tackling humanity’s most pressing challenges, whether it is space sustainability or climate change.
With the space economy expected to be valued at US $10 trillion by 2030, and with 8 billion people on the planet relying on aspects of space-based services every day, it is evident that keeping space-based services up and running is in the interest of individuals, governments, and the private sector.
As a company that prides itself on being active in the field of space sustainability, it is important to highlight that there are secondary positive effects for domains such as climate monitoring, food production, and agriculture, from Vyoma enabling safe passage of satellites in orbit and ensuring that these services remain online and accessible for the millions of farmers around the world.
This protects poorer communities from climate disasters, helping to secure fast emergency responses without any interruptions, ultimately preventing the loss of human lives.
To find out more about Vyoma, please view their supplier hub here on satsearch.