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Space Situational Awareness: Next Frontier in Space Technology

Aerospace and Defense | Apr, 2023

The space sector contributes to a more robust global economy and social and environmental protection initiatives. As a result, numerous industries and activities depend on safeguarding space assets from dangers, including artificial satellites, space weather phenomena, and near-Earth objects. Currently, 8261 individual satellites are orbiting the Earth, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) records. In 2022, the maximum number of orbital and suborbital launches have occurred. Increase in number of satellite launches can be attributed to the development of smaller CubeSat (miniaturized satellites), which are low-cost alternatives and require less expensive launch vehicles. In addition, many non-profit organizations, educational institutions, and commercial enterprises are launching satellites to conduct missions, gather space data for monitoring and communication purposes.

Moreover, the development of specialized satellite-launch solutions by market players such as ISRO, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Airbus, GomSpace, etc. are contributing to the satellite traffic in space. However, the rising number of satellites in space is creating a risk of collision, which can not only damage or destroy satellites but also hinder communications, navigation, and other services. The United States, China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, India, France, Canada, Germany, and Luxembourg are the top countries dominating the satellite industry. 

As space is becoming more congested than ever, it has become more important to ensure the safety and security of the orbital environment. Space situational awareness (SSA) is an imperative global endeavor that focuses on monitoring, tracking, and predicting the location of objects in space, including satellites and debris in the orbital environment of the Earth. SSA also involves identifying and predicting potential harmful natural phenomena produced by space weather events and threats posed to spacecraft by asteroids. Thus, SSA enhances the long-term safety and sustainability of the space environment along with ensuring that space activities proceed safely in accordance with domestic and international laws. Many nations and enterprises are developing and improving new SSA capabilities for more high-quality observations of objects in space.

Emerging Technologies to Revolutionize SSA

A number of companies and governments across the world are investing to develop and improve space situational awareness. In November 2022, Morpheus Space and Kayhan Space announced a collaboration to provide collision avoidance services with Morpheus Space propulsion with built-in Kayhan Space Pathfinder software. The collision avoidance pay-as-you-go subscription with preemptive collision avoidance and on-orbit maneuver options enable operators to purchase Delta-V fuel and complete collision avoidance, orbit-raising, or station-keeping maneuvers without any upfront costs of hardware. The aim of this collaboration is to make collision avoidance capabilities simple and seamless to use while making satellites more agile, intelligent, and safe with Kayhan’s Pathfinder spaceflight safety software. The software simulates, coordinates, and generates the best maneuver options in the case of a potential oncoming collision threat or conjunction using its own advanced algorithms, precise space catalog data, the operators' GPS positioning signals, propulsion capabilities, and flight plans.

A new prototype warning system by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is designed to alert spacecraft operators about the possible collision of a space object with another object. The system, known as Open-Architecture Data Repository (OADR), collects data on space condition and keep tabs on the growing population in the Earth’s orbit, and warns about the danger of collision. The data also includes information about the space weather events and satellites’ live telemetry and maneuvering plans. Collecting all the data, OADR creates a picture of the orbital environment and allows operators to assess any looming conjunctions. The system is expected to be fully operational by 2025.

European aerospace and defense giant Airbus has formed a partnership with the French space surveillance and operations safety startup, Share My Space to assess the reliability of Share My Space’s collision alert data. Through this collaboration, Airbus could enhance overall risk management practices in low earth orbit. Satellite operators must look at new methods of managing and scaling operations in order to adapt the protection of their space assets to the highly evolving and unpredictable traffic context in LEO. Share My Space provides direction on maneuver decision-making by providing information about object trajectories, lowering the likelihood of collision, and enhancing risk management. Beyond avoiding collisions, Share My Space's data gives operators the ability to spot maneuvers and improve their comprehension of satellite behavior, both of which are essential for safe space operations. Share My Space adds independent data to the public alert systems offered in the United States and Europe, giving satellite operators an extra layer of security.

Growing Use of ASAT Weapons and Killer Microsatellites to Fuel SSA Market

Access to the capabilities provided by satellites has become a key element of modern conflict, resulting in the creation of a range of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, which have been tested against satellites present in the orbit. Besides, many countries are developing killer microsatellites to damage other satellites and impact the communication channels. Over the next decade, new technologies are expected to emerge that would complicate the task of space aggressor by restricting the space situation awareness (SSA) information. This probable evolution in satellite design and operations is SSA warfare. The SSA Warfare strategies to be implemented by a nation wising to defend its space assets could include altering a satellite's detectable signatures permanently or only temporarily, as well as changing its concept of operations. Other, more active approaches include intentional attempts to disrupt SSA system functioning, such as the kinds of RF countermeasures that are already a well-established part of terrestrial military operations.

China’s military has already deployed 347 satellites to target US forces in future conflict, which poses the most immediate threat to attacks in space. Besides, Russia is also testing and deploying orbital anti-satellite weapons, which pose an acute threat of attacks on US satellites. By developing space weapons and technology to strike space systems and ground components, both nations intend to counteract America's supremacy in the space domain. Additionally, these nations intend to achieve information superiority by jamming communication and navigation systems in space used by an enemy through long-range precision strikes on satellite sensors and electronic warfare devices that can take down GPS and communication satellites. 

United States Department of Defense (DOD) has been advancing many programs to increase space security, keeping space situational awareness systems at the forefront. In 2021, US DOD provided a fund of USD 2.8 million to Kratos Defense & Security Solutions for the development of a prototype space situational awareness infrastructure. The cloud-based platforms host situational awareness data from dozens of commercial, academic, and government organizations to automatically deliver space-related situational awareness data to the Unified Data Library (UDL). Through this digital infrastructure, the Government's Common Operating Environment (COE) would have access to near-real-time SATCOM spectral data, as well as RF signal environment factors like Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) alerts and signal geolocation data at the appropriate security levels.

Rising Demand for Space-based Sensing Activities

The adoption of space or airborne sensors is increasing for remote sensing of objects or phenomena in the orbital zone for applications such as RF mapping, weather monitoring, GPS-radio occultation remote sensing, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, etc., to gather situational awareness data. Besides, data collected in space can help researchers address a range of infrastructure and environmental challenges, such as power generation, traffic congestion, pollution, wildfires, etc. A silicon retina, also known as an event-based sensor, is a cutting-edge imaging technology that has lately been created and is becoming more and more well-liked in the field of artificial vision systems. These gadgets work very differently from conventional CCD-based imaging sensors and are modeled after a biological retina. Through telescopic field tests, the usefulness and potential of event-based sensors for SSA applications are illustrated. The gadgets' ability to observe residing space objects from LEO to GEO orbital regimes has been demonstrated through test findings. It's noteworthy that RSOs were observed without changing the camera or optics under both day and night (terminator) conditions. The ability of the event-based sensor to photograph stars and satellites during daytime hours significantly boosts the capabilities of terrestrial optical sensors.

Way Ahead

The commercial space industry is expanding significantly as more satellites are being launched and more operations are being carried out in space by businesses. Due to this, there is a greater need for SSA systems to oversee and control these processes and guarantee their safety and effectiveness. However, compared to the speed of operating satellites, orbital debris typically moves at very rapid speeds, making it challenging for the present space situational awareness technology to detect it. If the spacecraft is impacted by the debris, the satellite might get terminated. However, improvements in artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms will help to improve the processing and analysis of SSA data, which would provide more precise and timely information about objects in space.

According to TechSci Research report on “Space Situational Awareness Market – Global Industry Size, Share, Trends, Opportunity, and Forecast, 2018-2028F, Segmented By Offering (Service, Software), By Object (Mission Related Debris, Rocket Bodies, Fragmentation Debris, Non-Functional Spacecraft, Functional Spacecraft), By End Use (Commercial, Government & Military) and By Region”, the global space situational awareness was valued USD202 million in the year 2022. The market is expected to reach a value of USD339.5 million by 2028, owing to the increasing launch of satellites and growing commercial satellite operations.

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