RHEA Talk: Space Situational Awareness
On 5 October 2021, we held our fifth RHEA Talk webinar – this time hearing from industry and agency experts on the current state of space situational awareness (SSA). Hosted by John Bone, RHEA’s Chief Commercial Officer, our panel included:
- Dr Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety Programme Office, European Space Agency (ESA)
- Frederic Pelletier, Technical Director, NorthStar Earth & Space Inc.
- Mark Rawlins, Director, Business Development, Government Services EMEA, Eutelsat
- Jim Cater, Regional VP, RHEA Group
According to ESA’s estimates, there are more than 330 million debris objects in orbit around Earth. Most measure less than 1cm, but there are still around 1 million that are bigger than this and over 35,000 larger than 10cm. Space hardware also faces threats from natural objects, space weather and cyberattacks. SSA programmes are therefore vital. In these excerpts from our SSA webinar, you can discover:
- What are key issues that highlight the importance of space situational awareness?
- How is the space insurance community reacting to SSA initiatives?
- Is there any interest in creating so-called ‘digital twins’ for SSA systems?
- Do you combine data from primary flight dynamics and sensors to perform collision avoidance manoeuvres?
- Will there be a capability gap between quantum computers being powerful enough to crack current security methods and new security coming online?
Watch the complete webinar to find out more.
What are key issues that highlight the importance of space situational awareness?
Fred: The world economy depends on satellites – individuals, businesses and governments rely on them every day to support essential services. So keeping space sustainable is a ‘must’. It is a global problem we all have to address; no single entity can do this alone.
There have been high profile examples of collisions over the years. At the same time, there has been an explosive growth in commercial space, which is stretching the current SSA framework to breaking point. And then there are other risks from uncooperative objects, cyberattacks and so on. Without a secure and safe space environment, the use of space is at risk. That is why NorthStar is developing a commercial, satellite-based solution for space object tracking.
“In recent years we have seen an acceleration in the evolution of the space environment. It is becoming more consumer-orientated and more accessible thanks to cheaper launches and smaller satellites. This impacts the frequency domain as well as resulting in a large increase in the number of objects that cannot be tracked and represent a risk to our satellites. In both areas we need to see coordination between operators, agencies and governments on best practices to ensure the space environment remains as clear and clean as possible, and that the limited resources in terms of frequencies are protected.”
Mark Rawlins, Director, Business Development, Government Services EMEA, Eutelsat
Holger: We see two challenges – the natural one and the manmade one. Space weather can change the environment in space and there is nothing we can do to stop that. Today there is no reliable space weather forecast, but we want to change that. As for manmade problems, we filter hundreds of alerts every day and carry out an avoidance manoeuvre of one of our 20 satellites every 2 weeks. With more space traffic, these manoeuvres include avoiding other live spacecraft, which adds an extra complication.
We dream of a world where we only get the alerts that are relevant for us and that would mean we probably only have to manoeuvre a satellite once or twice in the mission’s lifetime. This means the surveillance data needs to get much more accurate. We also need active removal of debris, especially where satellites fail before they can be deorbited, and in-orbit servicing to repair, refuel, reposition and, maybe one day, recycle them. ESA is supporting all of these areas.
Jim: There is a drive to make space cheaper, faster and simpler, with end-to-end deployment and the adoption of ‘ground segment as a service’. However, the downside is that missions can be more vulnerable. In addition, the increasing profile and influence of space systems is making them more of a target for cybercriminals. Even before satellites leave the ground, the design, development and build environments are targets, because if you can plant malware then, you have simplified your attack.
“Space is contested, congested and competitive and therefore more actors want to disrupt those capabilities. Even if the target is a third party, the space systems involved can still be exposed to collateral damage. There is, though, a lot of activity going on to prevent cyber issues arising and supporting stakeholders when they do arise, with both the EU and ESA focussing on cybersecurity for space.”
Jim Cater, Regional Director, RHEA Group
How is the space insurance community reacting to SSA initiatives?
Mark: When I was involved with the Space Data Association, we had some discussions with the insurance industry and their position was that if satellite operators did not cooperate [by seeking to prevent collisions], they would increase the premiums. I also heard recently that the insurance community was questioning whether they would be willing to insure satellites in LEO orbits in coming years.
Holger: In my experience you can insure anything! With regard to in-orbit servicing or active removal, insurers are reacting positively. However, the focus is still on self-protection – when it comes to protecting the environment, I think the market still has to develop and mature.
Is there any interest in creating so-called ‘digital twins’ for SSA systems?
Jim: Replicating a real system that emulates the multiple types of missions that are out there, from single satellites to mega constellations, through digital twins could be used to test security procedures. By attempting attacks in an emulated environment, you can ensure the system is robust and can deliver services effectively. There is a lot of work being done in this area, including work we are doing with ESA.
Fred: Modelling and simulation are at the core of what we do. We do it not only to design our constellation to meet our requirements for object tracking, but also from a data processing perspective. But modelling a perfect world does not reflect what really happens – instead you need a system that will take account of all gravitational forces that may act on an object in space, as that can result in the data you get not being as precise or as clear as you expect.
“ESA’s digital twin initiatives include a digital twin universe. The space environment will be represented in there, including space weather effects and data, the debris environment and everything that is needed in terms of conjunction. We would like to fold that in a digital twin universe as a large modelling exercise in a separate programme. Stay tuned for that!”
Dr Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety Programme Office, ESA
Do you combine data from primary flight dynamics and from sensors to perform collision avoidance manoeuvres?
Mark: Eutelsat, as a satellite operator, obviously tracks its own spacecraft. But we rely on the Space Data Association for conjunction analysis and work with at least three governments for coordination of any sort of manoeuvring activities. It is not normally something we would do unilaterally.
Holger: We compare ours with the one we get from the US Space Surveillance System and share our manoeuvring plans with them and with the world. Data sharing such as this is the beginning of space traffic management, in my view.
“We do not want to work in a silo on this – indeed, it is very important to cross-check yourself with other systems. Also, we all acknowledge that we need more data, but there is a lot more that we can do with what we have today. All the data being gathered by different organizations needs to be brought together to bring true space domain awareness.”
Frederic Pelletier, Technical Director, NorthStar Earth & Space Inc.
Will there be a capability gap between quantum computers being powerful enough to crack current security methods and new security coming online?
Mark: Quantum key distribution and encryption is something we are looking at, including how we can leverage the technology to protect and increase the security of our systems. When it becomes available, we will see how we can adopt it and integrate it into our security networks.
Find out more
Watch the webinar video to hear more about SSA from our experts.
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