WASHINGTON — More than 6,000 satellites are orbiting the Earth and 33,000 are projected to launch over the next decade. There are also tens of thousands of inactive objects, or space junk, requiring satellites today to have to maneuver through crowded debris fields.

But the space industry does not expect its growth to be dampened by congestion or by a doom-and-gloom narrative, executives said Feb. 7 at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California.

During a panel discussion, executives said they expect that a combination of new technologies, policies and business incentives to minimize debris creation will propel the industry forward despite congestion, hazards in orbit, and the lack of global rules for sustainable space operations. 

“Last year was an interesting inflection point, when we started to see more satellite operators willing to pay for space traffic management services,” said Dan Ceperley, founder and CEO of LeoLabs, a U.S. company that uses ground-based radars to track objects in low Earth orbit.

Space internet companies like SpaceX, Amazon and others, as well as the growing remote sensing industry, are investing billions of dollars in constellations, most in low Earth orbit. “And so they are quite conscious of the fact that if they lose satellites, and especially if they lose entire orbits, their business plans start to really get hurt,” Ceperley said. 

More demand for propulsion, autonomous tech

Companies also are willing to spend more money on propulsion technology to ensure their satellites can dodge obstacles and deorbit themselves when they’re no longer needed, said Toku Sakai, chief operating officer of Pale Blue, a Japanese company that develops propulsion systems that use water as propellant. 

“We are seeing a lot of commercial demand,” said Sakai. “Much of it is driven by regulatory requirements … But there’s also commercial self interest in essentially making sure that they’re able to send up a constellation of satellites that can avoid collisions, that can deorbit on time, and so without spending an insane amount of money.”

Charlie McGillis, vice president of Los Angeles-based Slingshot Aerospace, said the company has seen interest spike in its space traffic control software known as Beacon. Satellite operators that sign up for the service receive urgent collision alerts so they’re able to coordinate satellite maneuvers and communicate with other operators in high-risk situations.

Slingshot is offering Beacon for free, and the company is positioning the platform to support the emerging Department of Commerce’s space traffic management office. The Office of Space Commerce is currently evaluating commercial technologies to provide civil space traffic management services, such as warnings of potential collisions, a function currently performed by the Defense Department.

Ceperley said it was encouraging to see the Office of Space Commerce receive a large budget “in addition to the mandate to take over the space traffic management mission in the U.S.” 

The Department of Defense has provided a “great advisory service, but it’s not empowered as a regulator to enforce any changes,” Ceperley said. 

Another trend in the industry that is helping manage congestion is the use of automated tools to operate satellites and new transportation services that can deliver spacecraft to less-congested orbits, said David Henri, founder and chief product officer of Exotrail, a space logistics company based in France.

The company on Feb. 7 announced a $58 million fundraising round to scale up production of electric thrusters and expand efforts to provide in-space transportation services.

Since he founded the company in 2017, Henri said, he has seen “a big difference in how operators are dealing with space debris.”

Customers are investing in technologies for collision avoidance and situational awareness, he said. And they are using more advanced mission software to autonomously plan operations and minimize risk.

McGillis said the future is likely to follow the SpaceX Starlink model of autonomous operations with satellites doing their own conjunction avoidance maneuvers. “I think in the future there will be more of that,” she  said. “It will be like going down Interstate 405 and seeing no drivers. You’ll have self-driving cars, and no more accidents because it just flows so nicely.”

In space, said McGillis, “I think we can get to that, and I won’t call it Nirvana, but it will be almost Nirvana in space, where we can have autonomous capability and congestion isn’t such a problem.”

Clare Martin, executive vice president of Astroscale, a space logistics company based in Japan and the U.S., said the industry is increasingly motivated to ensure the sustainability of the space environment.

Astroscale offers active debris-removal services, which the industry expects governments to pay for. However, companies are willing to invest in capabilities to prevent further debris creation. “Commercial operators are actually actively engaged in behaving responsibly and sustainably and working with companies like ourselves to move things forward in the right direction,” Martin said. 

On the government side, she said, “the conversation in the U.S. has really picked up over the last year or two which is very, very positive.”

Abandoned rockets pose big hazards

Ceperley argued that the biggest danger to satellites in orbit is not other satellites but inactive rocket upper stages that have accumulated over decades. 

“Unfortunately, abandoned rocket bodies continue to be a problem in this day and age,” he said. Last year, LeoLabs identified about 50 rocket bodies discarded in low Earth orbit. “They’re quite massive,” he said. “In a sense, they’re ticking time bombs. So when they get hit, or if they break up, they can release a very large amount of debris.”

People tend to blame the mega constellations for the debris problem, said Ceperley. “I think the mega constellations are the victims of the environment. They’re the ones that have to maneuver around debris that was left in space decades earlier.”

The removal of these upper stages should be a priority, said Martin, because a single object could explode and create thousands more pieces of junk, “which would be much harder to remediate.”

“We all know that everyone on this planet is absolutely reliant on space services now,” she said. “That should be a huge motivator to help us actually address the problem now, rather than just focus on the doom and gloom aspect that we’ve not done a great job looking after the environment.”

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...