LOCI system takes on the task of observing assets in orbit 

With new stargazing cameras, the UK makes a giant leap toward space sovereignty

For years, the UK has relied heavily on the US government's space surveillance network to keep track of its assets in orbit. A new system developed by Raytheon NORSS promises to change that.

The ground-based system, known as LOCI or Low-Earth Orbit Optical Camera Installation, is beginning its international deployment in California. It tracks, detects and catalogues space debris, orbiting satellites, operational spacecraft and other objects to predict their orbits and avoid collisions. Since 2021, Raytheon NORSS has been using LOCI to supply mission-critical Space Surveillance and Tracking data to the UK Space Agency and UK Ministry of Defence.

Its global expansion signifies a leap toward the UK's space sovereignty.

“By deploying LOCI internationally, we are expanding our existing sensor network to improve our coverage and, ultimately, the UK’s awareness of what is occurring on orbit,” explained Sean Goldsbrough, head of Raytheon NORSS. “This will increase the quantity and quality of data we’re collecting and give our customers deeper insights into what is happening with and around their assets of interest and the overall space environment.”

Why California? 

Viewing the cosmos requires a dark, clear night sky – a rarity in England, where light pollution and cloud cover can sometimes cause issues for anyone from amateur stargazers to professional astronomers.  

The Sierra Mountains in California are far better suited for space observation, Goldsborough said, given their minimal light pollution and cloud coverage. This allows LOCI to capture high quality images with limited environmental interference.

“We’re selecting locations strategically to enable the collection of the most valuable data for understanding what customers need to know about their assets. A satellite in low-Earth orbit takes about 90 minutes to circle the globe. If you can capture multiple sightings of that satellite across its orbit, the better we can understand where it’s been and predict where it's going to be next,” said Goldsbrough.  

An agreement between Raytheon NORSS and ExoAnalytic Solutions – a company known for specialising in the study and monitoring of satellites orbiting the Earth – to implement sensors at their locations will enable LOCI to deploy more readily. Raytheon NORSS now has its sights set on future deployments covering the four corners of the globe.

“There’s huge value in the California site that we’ve selected, and ideally, we want to deploy LOCI wider, possibly to Australia, South Africa and Europe, to get an improved dispersion of premium positions around the globe,” said Goldsbrough. 

Unparalleled characterisation features

A key feature of the LOCI system is its ability to identify an object’s rough order of size or stability on-orbit, known as characterisation. This is done through assessing a satellite’s brightness as it passes through the camera’s field of view. It can also is detect and identify changes to on-orbit assets and the activity around them through light curve analysis.

“This type of data is critically important for defence industry customers who have assets positioned in place to perform protect-and-defend national security missions and who wish to guard against nefarious activity,” said Goldsbrough.

As with any sensor data, the information from LOCI requires process and analysis. Raytheon NORSS' NORSSTrack Space Domain Awareness Software assesses events including re-entry, proximity operations, fragmentation, manoeuvre detection and possible collisions – all to help customers make better decisions.

"We developed our NORSSTrack software specifically for space domain awareness and space-control mission support," Goldsbrough said. “This can help produce outputs that provide customers with key decision-making information to use in operational environments”.