Space-tracking ideas proliferating as fast as orbital debris
COLORADO SPRINGS — Commercial firms are developing models, simulations, algorithms and proposing new sensors to help the government improve its ability to tackle the problems of adversaries and orbital debris threatening U.S. satellites.
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., for example, developed Proximity Operations and Rendering (PROXOR), a simulation tool designed to help customers determine how well new ground- or space-based sensors will perform their Space Situational Awareness (SSA) functions.
“PROXOR provides a realistic, time-based mission and sensor data simulation that enables the evaluation of performance of various architectures and algorithms,” said Susan Hagerty, Ball Aerospace staff consultant.
With an estimated 22,000 orbiting objects larger than a softball and increasingly prevalent threats from foreign nations eager to compromise U.S. space-based capabilities, “we need to be able to detect new objects and changes in the behavior of existing satellites,” Hagerty said in one of four SSA presentations during Monday’s technical track at the 33rd Space Symposium.
In another, Launchspace Technologies Corp. proposed flying SSA sensors on the large, maneuverable debris-collection units it wants to send into equatorial low Earth orbit. Instead of targeting large debris, Launchspace Technologies is focusing on removing the estimated 10 to 20 million pieces of debris between one millimeter and five centimeters that is too small to be tracked with most ground-based sensors, yet large enough to harm or destroy satellites.
Eventually, that debris will cause so many collisions it will lead to gridlock in heavily used low Earth orbits, said Marshall Kaplan, chief technology officer for Launchspace Technologies.
With SSA sensors in equatorial orbit, Launchspace Technologies will gather data on objects in low Earth orbit that U.S. government and commercial organizations could use to improve SSA and manage space traffic, Kaplan said.
Cosmic Advanced Engineering Solutions offered a third approach to the SSA problem.
The Colorado Springs-based company is preparing to test a new way to estimate the range of satellites with the glint observed by ground-based sensors when the satellites pass through the line that demarcates the area of Earth illuminated by the sun.
“When an space object is not in a catalog, it is difficult to determine its range with optical instruments,” said Anja Brokaw, Cosmic senior software engineer. Glint information, combined with data from the U.S. government’s Space Surveillance Network may “provide faster updates to warfighters, commanders and commercial entities,” Brokaw
With U.S. Air Force funding, Boulder, Colorado-based Astra LLC is developing another SSA tool, a model called Dragster that is designed to improve the military’s ability to determine how much drag a satellite is experiencing.
“Satellite drag errors degrade our ability to maintain an accurate catalog of space objects, predict and avoid space collisions and predict satellite reentry time and location,” said Geoff Crowley, Astra chief executive and chief scientist.
Dragster, which relies on an ensemble of existing models, will move in the next couple of years into the Joint Space Operations Center, the Defense Department’s center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that characterizes and tracks space objects, Crowley said.