European firms partner for LEO collision avoidance demo

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TAMPA, Fla. — Three young European space companies said Jan. 9 they have teamed up to test a collision avoidance system on a small satellite this year in low Earth orbit (LEO). 

The partners plan to use data from Portuguese space traffic management (STM) company Neuraspace to guide electric thrusters developed by Spain’s Ienai Space on a cubesat built by Endurosat, based in Bulgaria.

The satellite, the size of 12 cubesats, is due to hitch a ride on the second launch of Germany-based Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum rocket, which is slated to debut earlier in 2023.

Once in orbit, the thrusters would be able to respond to simulated and real collision warnings and maneuvering suggestions from Neuraspace’s STM platform.

The amount of conjunction alerts in critical orbits has soared five times in recent years as record numbers of satellites are sent around the Earth, Neuraspace director Chiara Manfletti said in an interview.

That has led to “a nine-fold effort going into looking at maneuvers — whether a conjunction is really going to happen or not.”

Neuraspace’s machine-learning algorithms pool space-tracking data from commercial partnerships and publicly available sources to lower this burden on operators and reduce unnecessary maneuvers.

The company secured its first commercial contract Dec. 29 with an undisclosed customer, according to Manfletti.

She said Neuraspace has seven other pilot customers that are “going to be putting up something like 400-plus” satellites in total over the next couple of years.

Most of them are constellation builders in LEO for applications including Earth observation and telecommunications.

“We are demonstrating our capabilities as we speak,” she added, “but we want to improve our maneuvering strategies and this is what this mission is going to enable us to do.”

While Neuraspace currently uses human operators on Earth to facilitate the guidance its artificial intelligence produces, the company ultimately plans to integrate its software onboard satellites for autonomous maneuverability. 

By marrying Neuraspace’s brains with the muscle provided by Ienai’s thrusters, the companies hope to one day overcome the computing and power limitations that hold back automatic collision-avoidance maneuvers on small satellites.

Improving the quality and scope of space-tracking data will also be necessary, as will building up trust with operators.

“You first have to build trust with an operator and the owner of the satellite [that] you’re not going to do anything crazy with it,” Manfletti said.

“But if there’s that trust, there is an option in our [current, terrestrial-based] workflow where the command can be uploaded to the spacecraft automatically, or interface directly with whatever operation software that they use.” 

Despite SpaceX’s use of electric thrusters to steer Starlink satellites clear of debris from Russia’s anti-satellite test in 2021, Ienai CEO Daniel Pérez said there’s also “still a question on the industry” of whether the propulsion technology “can actually perform in cases of collision avoidance.”

The mission is part of other thruster demonstrations Ienai is planning in 2023 on increasingly larger satellites following its first in-orbit demonstration last year.

Other EnduroSat customer payloads will also be on the mission, according to the Bulgarian manufacturer, which deployed its first satellite in 2018.