The commercialisation of space is expanding with companies set to launch thousands of spacecraft into low-Earth orbit, or LEO, over the next few years.
LEO satellites are deployed in far greater numbers than larger and potentially more expensive medium-Earth orbit and geostationary spacecraft and their rapid proliferation brings exponential levels of risk. They can orbit at speeds of up to 15,700 mph, and risk colliding with one another if not managed correctly.
That is why governments around the world are now demanding new tactics, techniques and procedures as well as technologies to track satellites more accurately and safely, allowing providers to alter trajectories and select safer orbits pre- and post-launch.
Central to such a capability is space domain awareness – a particular area of interest for Raytheon UK’s Strategic Research Group. The team of experts, working alongside Raytheon Technologies Corporation in the United States, is identifying emerging tactics and technologies to track satellites more accurately across all orbits.
“Collisions in space can cause significant damage to spacecraft and payloads, not to mention disrupt critical connectivity services to end users on the ground, in the air and at sea”, said Bradley Allsop, head of Raytheon UK’s Strategic Research Group. “So, we are exploring multiple avenues to accurately track satellites from the ground and in space, including the design of optical payloads for satellites as well as ground-based RF radars, which are also capable of detecting and tracking anti-satellite missiles.”
Today, orbiting spacecraft can be tracked at best to within one to two kilometers in accuracy, making it difficult to predict potential collisions in the future. Historic efforts have included the use of terrestrial high-powered lasers to measure positioning of satellites, and whilst this is a solution that increased the accuracy of satellites to within tens of metres, it also negatively impacted air traffic safety.
“A few years ago, the chances of collision by or damage to satellites in space was about 20 percent,” said Allsop. “But if we have accurate readings, we can significantly reduce the chance of collision, which is particularly important in LEO orbits.”
That isn’t the only threat satellites face. Space is also home to lots of debris – more than 10,000 metric tons. That includes 128 million pieces smaller than a centimeter in diameter and nearly a million from one to 10 centimeters. There are also 34,000 pieces of large debris, defined as 10 centimeters in diameter or larger
Employing its expertise in automation and artificial intelligence, Raytheon UK has partnered with small and medium enterprises including ExoAnalytic Solutions and Northern Space & Security to generate data points and conduct conjunction analysis of spacecraft and debris to assess the potential for collision-avoidance manoeuvres in the future.
“We have taken these activities as far as we can with initial levels in funding, but our intent is to take forward what we have learned and contribute to UK Government space domain awareness priorities highlighted in the National and Defence Space Strategies,” said Paul Day, a business development executive at Raytheon UK.
Through collaborating with government and industry partners to better understand space and terrestrial weather, Raytheon UK is looking to help the UK take a lead in space domain awareness and in implementing a sustainable space strategy. This will also help in responding to the actions of bad actors in space.
The company is also, through the provision of mission management software, supporting the UK MoD’s MINERVA programme, a £127m science, technology and innovation programme that plans to establish a LEO constellation to support military operations around the world.
Finally, it is also supporting the cyber-hardening of space-based infrastructure – a critical capability which has risen to prominence with cyberattacks on satellite assets in recent months.