WASHINGTON — Slingshot Aerospace, a space tracking and data analytics company, announced April 12 it is expanding its network of ground-based optical telescopes to increase coverage of low Earth orbit. 

The company currently operates about 150 optical sensors at more than 20 sites around the world. By the end of 2023, Slingshot expects to deploy about 80 more telescopes. These autonomous sensors will be added to existing sites and at two new Southern Hemisphere sites Slingshot plans to build. 

Slingshot’s co-founder and CEO Melanie Stricklan said there is growing commercial and governmental demand for space situational awareness of low Earth orbit (LEO). Much of that demand today is met by radar sensors but there is also a need for more detailed data captured by  optical sensors. 

The rapid proliferation of active satellites and space junk in lower orbits is alarming and requires more eyes on target, she said.  “LEO is really at a crossroads,” Stricklan told SpaceNews. “It’s home to over 90% of all satellites launched since 1957.”

There are about 6,500 operational satellites in orbit today, she said, “and we can expect between 60,000 and 150,000 by the end of the decade.”

Optical adds context to radar data

Optical telescopes that use visible or infrared light to observe objects in space augment the coverage provided by radar, Stricklan said. Radar tracks an object’s distance and location while angular and brightness data from optical sensors provides additional context, she said, such as how the object is moving.

Slingshot acquired its network of telescopes when it bought Numerica’s space-tracking business last year. Numerica’s day-night telescopes traditionally had been used to track satellites in geostationary orbit and were modified to also track objects in LEO. 

Stricklan said the company will soon announce the location of its two new Southern Hemisphere space-tracking sites.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...