As Boeing, SpaceX and OneWeb grab headlines with plans to launch enormous satellite constellations, a quieter campaign is being waged by the firms vying for the job of helping government and commercial satellites navigate around each other and dodge debris.
“Everyone assumes that if I put this thing on orbit it will be okay,” said Moriba Jah, director of the University of Arizona’s Space Object Behavioral Sciences Initiative. “That’s not guaranteed.”
In fact, as popular orbits become increasingly congested, the job of tracking satellites grows more challenging, a fact the U.S. Department of Defense cites as one of the reasons it is eager to turn the job of warning commercial and international satellite operators of possible collisions over to the Federal Aviation Administration. At the same time, the Defense Department is making no secret of its desire to draw on commercial products and services to strengthen the military’s ability to monitor the space environment. Meanwhile, commercial firms are preparing to launch thousands of satellites in the next decade to provide communications, Earth-observation and weather-monitoring services.
All those factors point to growing demand for the nascent commercial- space situational-awareness industry, which includes the companies that operate sensors to detect and track objects in orbit, as well as the firms that process and analyze the data for the Defense Department, U.S. intelligence community, civil-government agencies, commercial satellite operators and international customers.
“Our increasing dependence on space, the threats to our space assets, and the increasing commercial activity in space makes it more important than ever to be fully aware of space object activity,” said Paul Welsh, vice president of business development for Analytical Graphics, Inc., (AGI) a company based in Exton, Pennsylvania, which provides spaceflight software.
In 2014, AGI established the Commercial Space Operations Center, which fuses data drawn from a global sensor network to detect, track and characterize objects in orbit. AGI expects other companies to start performing similar work. “There are going to be a whole host of different informative data services tracking everything, establishing patterns of normal activity and detecting when something abnormal happens,” Welsh said.
Until recently, the Defense Department’s Space Surveillance Network was the only global sensor network capable of cataloging objects in orbit. U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center continues to identify possible on-orbit collisions and notify the parties involved. The U.S. government dominates the space situational awareness market, spending approximately $1 billion a year on personnel, operations and equipment, according to a 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office entitled “Space Situational Awareness: Status of Efforts and Planned Budgets.”
Recently, however, companies have started peering into space with their own sensor networks and gathering data from previously untapped sources, including optical telescopes and radars designed primarily for scientific research. Instead of cutting into the government business, most observers expect the federal agencies to devote more resources to tracking objects in orbit.
“We expect both the commercial and military space situational awareness market to grow over the next five to ten years,” Dan Hart, vice president of Boeing Government Satellite Systems, said by email. “In the last few years we’ve seen increased operational integration between commercial and military organizations, and a demonstration of the value of this data to both groups. In addition, evidence and wider recognition of the growing threat environment has led to an increasing focus on space superiority.”
A desire to focus on threats to U.S. satellites is prompting the Defense Department to begin working more closely with the FAA. If the FAA receives congressional authority and liability protection, it plans to spend less than $100 million to establish a space-traffic organization and to spend approximately $20 million per year to operate it. To determine the best way to set up that organization, the FAA is inviting commercial firms to share their ideas.
“This is a clear signal that the marketplace for good ideas is open,” Welsh said.
Companies eager to enter that marketplace are busy establishing alliances and expanding their line of products and services.
In May, Schafer Corp. of Arlington, Virginia formed a Commercial Space Situational Awareness business unit, led by retired U.S. Air Force Col. Donald Greiman. Since then, Schafer has assembled a team of companies that can collectively track, catalog and characterize objects in orbit. The team includes includes ExoAnalytic Solutions and its global network of ground-based telescopes, Menlo Park, California’s LeoLabs, which operates mobile phased array radars, Seradata and its SpaceTrak database of satellites and launch vehicles, and Vision Engineering Solutions, which tracks and characterizes objects in low-Earth orbit.
Instead of producing a single catalog of objects in orbit like the Defense Department does, Schafer and its partners are more interested in gathering as much data as they can to give customers timely access to whatever technical information meets their needs, Greiman said.
Another team, led by Applied Defense Solutions (ADS) of Columbia, Maryland, won a roughly $25 million contract in October to use commercial data to track objects in orbit for the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center located at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. The center, known as JICSpOC, was established in 2015 by the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies to test cutting-edge tactics and technologies. The ADS team includes Lockheed Martin, Pacific Defense Solutions and Kratos RT Logic.
“I’m an aggregator of commercial space situational awareness data,” said Ryan Frederic, ADS president and chief executive. “We’re looking to the market. It’s too early to bet on any one technology or provider.”
In fact, the most comprehensive picture of objects in orbit is likely to be produced by fusing data from a variety of existing and new sensors located on the ground and in orbit, said Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation.
Some of the new sensors are being developed by startups, such as LeoLabs and North Star Space Data Inc., a firm based in Montreal that plans to launch a constellation of Earth-observation satellites equipped with space situational awareness sensors.
“We want to provide a tenfold improvement in the number of objects that can be detected and tracked,” said Stewart Bain, president and chief executive of NorthStar Space Data Inc. “Our concept is to track objects in low-Earth orbit down to one centimeter, and in geosynchronous orbit down to 10 centimeters.”
In addition, established firms plan to expand their role in the space situational awareness. Lanham, Maryland’s a.i. solutions will build on its expertise designing software for U.S. Air Force and NASA space programs to serve additional civil, military and commercial space customers, said Paul Noonan, a.i. solutions vice president. The company provides software for a variety of space situational awareness jobs, including maintenance of space -object catalogs, risk assessment and collision-avoidance maneuvers.