Looking Up Towards the Next Leap in Space System Safety and Sustainability 

Nicole HeinsBy Nicole Heins, Senior Conference Producer at Space Tech Expo USA

Space safety* encompasses many things, including the monitoring and maintenance of satellites and debris in Earth’s orbits, tracking natural objects such as asteroids and ensuring major conflict in space remains avoided. The first month of the new decade announced the launch of more satellites for the LEO-based Starlink constellation as well as the near-miss of two satellites in the same orbit – two developments that raise increasing concerns when it comes to the safety of our systems in Earth’s orbits.

These events raise critical questions from industry players and the general public, but also spur innovation to manage existing satellites in LEO, MEO and GEO, and the decommissioning of dead satellites. Simultaneously, satellites are becoming more advanced by using new communications methods such as optical communications and software-defined satellites. As such, there is an emerging risk to the security of those satellites: namely the ‘spoofability’ of its signals.

While these concerns become increasingly pressing, it is reassuring to know that not all is doom and gloom. In fact, the conversation on the tracking of satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbits continues, and the recent warning sent out by LeoLabs regarding the close call between IAS and GSSE4 amplifies the necessity for these systems to be as accurate as possible – even for objects that are currently untrackable. Many efforts are in place to increase awareness and capabilities, including the ongoing efforts from ESA’s space debris office, tracking led by commercial organizations such as LeoLabs and AGI, as well as industry groups such as the Space Data Association.

MEV-1Image credit: SpaceLogistics LLC

As part of our journey on the road to ensuring a sustainable and safe environment for space systems, on-orbit servicing (OOS) and rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) missions are entering the dawn of a new era in 2020. OOS and RPO missions optimize existing, operational satellites by providing them extra juice to avoid becoming a lifeless and potential hazardous object in (often) GEO. Northrop Grumman’s SpaceLogistics is one of the pioneers, as it is gearing up to dock with Intelsat’s 901 communications satellite in Spring 2020. The mission should provide the satellite with extra propellant, extending its lifetime.

SpaceLogistics is joined in satellite servicing capabilities by competitors Maxar Technologies, who develop and design the RESTORE-L mission in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This emerging servicing market has also allowed for the inception of entrepreneurs aiming to tackle the challenges of space safety in Earth’s orbits. Examples include Altius Space Machines, Astroscale, Effective Space Solutions, Officina Stellare and OKAPI Orbits. While the industry will take a major step this year, there are, of course, further challenges to overcome. Leading international industry organizations and agencies are all working to facilitate a next step to ensure a safe approach to OOS and RPO, including efforts from NASA, ESA and JAXA.

One of the organizations shepherding OOS and RPO efforts is the CONFERS consortium, an industry led group tasked with providing guidelines and standards for on-orbit servicing and rendezvous and proximity operations. It recently published recommended standards for this growing market, and also identified gaps where further work is still required to enhance a safe approach to OOS and RPO.


Credit: students at Space Engineering Research Center 2019 (SERC) at the USC School of Engineering

Advancements in technology are ongoing in order to facilitate the next step in OOS. One of the requirements is a focus on the design of future satellite buses. Joe Anderson, vice president of operations and business development told Space Tech Expo: “Once we have a persistent robotic satellite servicing capability in GEO, we anticipate that the next incremental step in GEO satellite design will be to incorporate features that will enable repair and augmentation such as ports to add additional fuel tanks or refuelling, and a Universal Satellite Bus (USB) port that would provide structure, power, and data interfaces for ‘plugging’ in replacement or augmentation components.”

Jonathan Goff, CEO of Altius Space Machines, also highlighted the necessity for affordable robotics and cooperative interfaces. “Altius is working on developing a deployable magnetic capture manipulator that can enable reliable capture of even tumbling targets. Altius is also working on grappling interfaces (DogTags) and modular connector and/or refuelling interfaces (MagTags).”

Another major area of development that will contribute to the safe and sustainable use of space systems in Earth orbit is cyber and signal security. The satellite of the future is software-defined, allowing it to respond to customer requirements and as such act as a more flexible asset. But where new technologies come into play, new risks arise too, and this is certainly the case for satellites that now have a potential to become ‘hackable’.

Particular advancements in securing signals could be made with quantum communications technologies. This technology, which falls under the quantum technologies umbrella, just like quantum computing, allows for enhanced signal security through using entangled photons (instead of the qubits used in quantum computing). The manipulation of these photons allows for quantum key distribution, which secures the distribution of signals. Quantum communications company SpeQtral IQ is currently working on implementing  and commercializing this technology, by outfitting satellites with an Entangled Photon Source, allowing the quantum properties to work their magic on securing satellite signals. These quantum technologies, as well as other technologies such as artificial intelligence, will be a great contributor to the cyber and signal security of future satellites and ground stations.

Keen to learn more about satellite servicing, developments in space domain awareness and the use (and security) of new signals and software in space systems? Join us at the free to attend Space Tech Expo Conference on Tuesday May 19 and Wednesday May 20 in Long Beach, CA. Industry leaders and entrepreneurs, including SpaceLogistics, Altius Space Machines, NASA and SpeQtral IQ will join us on stage to continue the vital discussion on these topics. To see what other topics the show will cover, make sure to take a look at the agenda preview. See you in Sunny California!

*This piece covers key elements contributing to the safe management of satellites and other artificial objects within Earth's orbits, including the increased awareness of space debris and solutions contributing to this, satellite servicing and cyber security. It deliberately excludes space weather and natural objects posing a risk to Earth and its orbiting satellites