TAMPA, Fla. — German startup Vyoma said April 28 it has partnered with European IT giant Atos to build a database of tiny space objects that it plans to track with its own satellites from next year.
Their partnership aims to develop solutions for delivering space situational awareness (SSA) data to satellite operators to help them avoid costly collisions and unnecessary spacecraft maneuvers.
Stefan Frey, Vyoma’s CEO, said the startup is currently providing tracking services and data quality assessments to European defense customers through “third-party networks of ground-based sensors, including heterogeneous data providers such as telescopes and laser ranging stations.”
Under favorable conditions, Frey said the best-performing ground telescopes in this network can observe objects down to between 5 to 10 centimeters in size in low Earth orbit, and down to around 50-centimeters in geostationary orbit.
However, this can only be achieved “via dedicated target tracking” of objects in certain positions and under clear atmospheric conditions.
The startup closed pre-seed and seed rounds last year to develop space-based cameras to track so-far untrackable objects as small as 1 centimeter with a semi-autonomous network of satellites working under “surveillance mode.”
There is a big difference between what can currently be observed in space and what can be tracked often enough to build and maintain an operational database.
Currently, the most comprehensive catalog of orbital observations comes from the U.S. Department of Defense’s terrestrial-based Space Surveillance Network, which provides information about objects that are 10 centimeters or larger. Statistical models are used to infer the population of objects in space that are smaller than 10 centimeters.
Frey said Vyoma is currently raising a Series A round to fund two pilot microsatellites, which aim to provide more accurate orbit location and trajectory estimates that are unaffected by the weather. The satellites will target a launch toward the end of 2023 to initially focus on tracking and cataloging objects larger than 30-centimeters.
According to Frey, these two satellites will be capable of observing objects down to 5 centimeters, however, “we will occasionally miss detections for such small objects when we operate in surveillance mode.”
Cataloging smaller objects requires a larger constellation of satellites with improved sensors, he said, and Vyoma aims to launch an additional 10 satellites over the 18 months that follow its first launch.
“The 12 satellites give us a high revisit frequency, required for the cataloguing of small fragments (>1 cm), whose orbits are heavily perturbed by drag and other forces,” Frey said via email.
“We will soon announce our partners for the satellite integration and launch provision.”
There are around one million objects in space between 1 and 10 centimeters in size, according to the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, compared with estimates of roughly 36,000 greater than 10 centimeters.
Even small objects have the energy in orbit to cause unrepairable damage if they collide with satellites or other spacecraft.
“With our timely and comprehensive catalogue of space objects, we not only increase the satellite’s safety, but also decrease the number of false alerts that otherwise lead to costly manoeuvres and mission downtime,” Frey added.
“Thus, we make sure space remains sustainable for future generations.”
Rajeev Suri, CEO of British satellite operator Inmarsat, called for better space management in an April 26 speech that warned the industry was “moving in the wrong direction” to keep space sustainable.
Addressing a Royal Aeronautical Society conference, Suri highlighted the increasing risk of debris from expanding megaconstellations, along with their potential for polluting the environment as they burn up in the atmosphere at the end of their operational lives.
“Consider that in 2014 there were 1,200 active satellites in orbit,” he said.
“Six years later, that number was approaching 5,000. Today, megaconstellations are talking about tens of thousands of new satellites during this decade – satellites with an expected life of only five to ten years. The resulting debris creates hazards not just in a particular orbit, but for anything passing through that orbit.”
“We simply do not yet understand all the risks this creates and we do not yet have all the technologies needed to manage the situation effectively.”
NorthStar, Privateer, Scout, Spaceable and Digantara are among other startups developing businesses to improve SSA data.
Their use of different sensor types and observational characteristics makes them complementary to Vyoma, according to Frey, who said he plans to incorporate their data into its solutions where possible.
“The hardest part is not the data generation, but the data association, i.e., going from millions of images to a concise catalogue of space objects,” he said.
“This is where we are strongest.”
Atos, which has 111,000 employees and generates about 11 billion euros in annual revenue, has supported satellite operators for 20 years with a broad range of products and services.
These include payload testing equipment that megaconstellation operator OneWeb has used for its satellites.