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The Startup Building the First Constellation of Satellites To Track Space Debris

The Startup Building the First Constellation of Satellites To Track Space Debris

An artist’s impression of multiple human-made satellites orbiting Earth. Image: NorthStar E&S.

Space is becoming more cluttered. Earth’s orbits are together likely to represent a $1 trillion economy in the next 20 years, by housing the highest number of satellites in history.

Multiple companies, but especially SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon, have plans to launch over 46,000 satellites in the next few years. However, this accelerated growth of space activity will jeopardise the sustainable, long-term use of space. Space junk in particular can hamper the operation of other satellites and present deadly physical hazards to human spaceflight missions.

Against this backdrop, private entities have started to realise the need for space situational awareness (SSA). Accurate knowledge of the trajectory of orbital objects is invaluable. And the Canadian startup NorthStar Earth & Space hopes to revolutionise our ability to deal with orbital debris.

On October 27, NorthStar E&S announced its intent to construct Skylark, a constellation of 12 satellites to monitor space from space, and deliver timely and precise intelligence on space traffic, collision avoidance and navigation services to the international community of satellite operators. The first three satellites are being pursued as a joint venture with French-Italian aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, and are expected to be launched by 2022. The company has also contracted US small-satellite manufacturer Leostella to oversee the assembly of the rest.

Afiya Qureshi spoke to NorthStar E&S CEO and cofounder Stewart Bain. The interview is presented in full below. Links in the text were added by The Wire Science.

Tell us about how Skylark will track orbital objects.

Most providers of low-Earth mapping today work from the ground using primarily radar and more recently the ChipScope optical microscopy infrastructure. NorthStar is proposing to complement these techniques via a constellation of satellites equipped with dedicated optical sensors. Our system will be able to survey all near-Earth orbits as well as the geostationary orbit.

Such a unique perspective with closer proximity with space objects will offer more precise observations than any current system and with higher revisit frequency per object. The result is unprecedented coverage, custody and enhanced predictive capabilities. Also, this arrangement will be able to surpass variable constraints like temperature, weather and atmosphere to ensure high-fidelity tracking services.

How is NorthStar planning to upgrade SSA?

Tracking space objects continuously from space presents a mathematical and orbital mechanic challenge. What we have essentially been doing over the years is developing an algorithm that converts streaks of light flying across your radar from all the orbits into a formula that can predict where these objects are going to be at any given time. This is our intellectual property. We’re turning 2D images of space into a secure, data-driven and 3D catalogue of the space environment.

The ability to image, analyse and digitise the details into a comprehensive map of space is poised to be a game-changer in applied space situational awareness.

How was Project Skylark conceived?

When NorthStar was founded eight years ago, I and my colleagues in the US were brainstorming about where there is potentially going to be a space-based problem in the future that was not being addressed back then. It boiled down to space situational awareness, and we figured out that the best way to do it is from space itself.

Project Skylark was not called ‘Skylark’ then, we referred to it as the NorthStar Project. We named Project Skylark after the Canadian Alouette-1 satellite launched in 1962. ‘Alouette’ is a French word that translates to ‘skylark’ in English. Interestingly, it was also the first satellite to be launched by Canada and third in the world. We wanted to reflect back to a first for Canada with our mission, as Skylark is also very unique in its own right.

How is NorthStar looking to collaborate with other space operators for tracking their junk for them, and bring data about satellites to its customers?

The world is gearing up for the New Space Economy. Space is going to be the playground for a record number of activities in all history. So there are a lot of players hoping to build a future in space. We are looking at this opportunity in a way to make sure there is a future.

NorthStar is into providing a subscription service catering to a range of potential clientele such as commercial satellite operators, civil governments, military survey as well the investors and regulators of these enterprises. They can sign up for the information services as per their need and they have access to evergreen, well-categorised data about not just their satellite but every object that cohabits the space. This obliterates the requirement for custom software options that don’t serve the interest SSA ought to.

NorthStar was rooted in Canada, because we believe Canada is a very internationally-trusted country, we are technologically advanced. We have a lot of great talent and capability in Montreal with a very well-known aerospace cluster and we are tapping on that.

The world needs a system of governance for space that people have confidence in and can use together. Having a sense of community is key, especially if we want to be dealing with data and information services. Countries like India and Australia are far away from us geographically but so close to us in space. We all share the same space.

What average lifespan are we looking at for the Skylark satellites? Won’t they eventually become space junk, too?

Of course. We are licensed under the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), and so we have to have a very safe deorbiting regime. The Skylark satellites will last for at least five years. But what’s more important [about] the definite lifespan is that the satellites will be constantly replenished with the latest updates so that customers can get a continuous improvement of services.

The rest of the nine satellites will be launched in a batch of three each after 2024.

As the satellites age naturally, we bring them down safely and launch a replacement with up-to-date technology.

Also read: Near Collision of Rocket Part, Satellite in Orbit Stirs up Space Junk Worries

How do you plan on tackling issues like radiation damage to the NorthStar constellation?

Our satellites will be stationed at 575 kilometres in a circular polar orbit. So we won’t be operating in a high-radiation environment.

The US military also has a constellation of satellites as part of the Space-Based Surveillance System (SBSS) programme, which intends to track space debris. Could you tell us how the tech in use at NorthStar is different from that with the SBSS?

I’m an environmentalist and I’m about providing a commercial service to the world. There are elegant sensors that are used for security in military applications that are outside the scope of NorthStar’s mission. They have specific purposes that aren’t about our business.

NorthStar would supplement these functionalities. I’m sure with the fresh vision that we bring to the equation, the concept of operation will benefit all parties involved with space.

Project Skylark involves real-time tracking: could this functionality be exploited or misused in the future? Just how data is tracked today gives certain companies an upper hand, like in the case of Facebook with the US elections.

As a part of our license requirement and ground operations, we have high data-security standards. NorthStar is obligated to follow the NIST Cybersecurity Framework to protect data. That’s an important measure from a commercial perspective. We want to make sure that our data is not tampered with, and that the quality of our data and its verifiability are consistent.

What is the future of space regulation? Who should be ideally in-charge of overseeing activities in the near-Earth orbit zone?

As Canada [entered] the Space Age with the launch of Alouette-1, it signed the Outer Space Treaty. As per Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty, all governments around the world are responsible for monitoring activities in space and maintaining it as a safe and secure place. Skylark is a service we bring to those objectives.

I think the United Nations (UN) and the World Space Alliance (WSA) have a role to play in regulating the zone and issuing the voluntary guidelines, and they are supported by the member states. As a commercial undertaking, we support the directives of the UN.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has pointed out that as satellite constellations grow to hundreds or thousands of satellites, it’s going to become impossible to manually avoid collisions. So after NorthStar provides satellite operators with the information, how can they use it? What would be their immediate line of action to avoid a potential collision with an active satellite or debris?

We read about potential collisions announcements all the time, yet they never happen. This is very telling about how much we really know about what is happening in space. It is important that when word like this goes out into the public domain, it is dealt with apprehension and not as a source of alarm.

Sure, satellites do stand a chance to run into each other, but now we have a system to monitor their relative trajectories and accurately calculate the probability of an accident. So when there is no emergency, we don’t raise one.

NorthStar deliverables help you prove that high-quality information helps people make decisions in near real-time. The subscribers can plan their course of action 72-96 hours in advance. We’re talking metres of accuracy versus kilometres of accuracy. Once the satellite operator has the data, it is up to the user whether to use their automated system to fire their spacecraft or to use our real-time service to feed into their system and make it workable.

Manually, and with a lower level of information, it would not be doable. You need a combination of both these features – high precision and near real-time information of the event, and your automated system. Together that makes it achievable.

An artist’s illustration of Skylark satellites in Earth orbit. Image: NorthStar E&S

There are thousands of satellites and potentially lakhs of pieces of space junk circling the Earth but even so, you say collisions in space haven’t been common? How crucial or urgent is it for us to control traffic in space?

After the collision of the US Iridium-33 and the Russian Kosmos-2251 satellites in 2019, we knew that we do not want collisions in space in the future. Risks owed to space debris and on-orbit traffic are paving the way for more plausible space collisions that can, in turn, leave hundreds of pieces of junk in their wake.

In 2019, ESA revealed there are 128 million pieces of space debris floating in Earth’s orbit. The Kessler syndrome is real. Because business isn’t as usual in space – if we congest space and have accidents, it will take an immeasurable amount of time to clear the debris. It’s imminent. For us, it’s truly immediate.

With the proliferation of the new space economy and trillions of dollars being invested into sophisticated satellites, we must have a sense of security for our spacecraft. And it is only possible if we view space as a vital resource. The concept of a space economy must start to drive the need for safety.

Can you tell us about the utility that Project Skylark has for Asian countries, particularly India?

I think Asian countries are wanting to get more involved in space and we strive to make a safer environment for them. India has been a world leader in space. It has a very robust space program, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and they have versatile launch vehicles like the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and several other commercial satellites. It will want to have more and more accurate information to carry out its activities, manage its debris, and be a responsible player. We’ll be very happy to support that with our services.

Next in NorthStar’s pipeline are dual mission satellites performing both SSA and Earth-observation. Equipped with hyperspectral, infrared and optical sensors, these upgraded satellites will function continuously from space, probing into Earth’s ecosystems and surrounding orbit daily. The company plans to deliver contextualised data solutions directly to end users in the private and public sectors, providing critical knowledge about Earth and its orbital environment starting from 2024.

Afiya Qureshi is an independent journalist who writes on space science and technology. She is a former science writer at Mashable India.

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