How to Avoid Spacecraft Collisions

Traffic etiquette, once learned, can seem intuitive: a driver stops their car at a red light, understanding that cross-traffic will have a green light and the right-of-way. Coordinating these simple signals have enabled a vast transportation system that continuously accommodates over 275 million motor vehicles across the United States. Before traffic signals, thoroughfares were congested with cars, horses, and people leading to avoidable accidents.

In support of the Office of Space Commerce within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Aerospace experts have contributed to a cloud-based prototype system that will allow for ingesting vast amounts of space object orbital data, creating an essential digital repository that enables the level of space situational awareness data sharing and processing needed for the space domain to thrive.

“The expected exponential increase in space activity in the coming years will be driven by commercial activities,” said Uma Bruegman, Assistant General Manager in Aerospace’s Civil Systems Operations. “Aerospace has a deep history of collaborating with defense, civil and commercial space to advance the nation’s space enterprise. Supporting government missions and working with all stakeholders to address the need for effective space traffic coordination schemes is a natural extension of our inherent space expertise.”

Why Space Congestion Matters

With estimates for the number of new satellites expected to be launched by 2030 as high as 58,000, the current space environment is experiencing an unprecedented boom. While this development is facilitating new opportunities for innovation and exploration, it also elevates concerns of considerable congestion of low Earth orbit.

The timeline video above illustrates the number of objects in orbit since 1957, which continues to grow at an exponential rate with the accelerated pace of space activity. Left unaddressed, the current trend poses a legitimate threat to the sustainability for the future of space operations.

Left unaddressed, the current trend poses a legitimate threat to the sustainability of the future of space operations. Unlike car accidents that can be removed from the highway system, space collisions result in debris that can hamper operations for decades.

Similar to the evolution of highway systems, there is a continuous need to evolve space traffic systems to ensure a safe and sustainable operating environment for current and future generations. Preserving the near-Earth space environment through space traffic coordination efforts is an increasingly essential part of achieving sustainability and scalability for all participants operating in space.

Enabling Broader Data Sharing for Safe Space Operations

The ongoing transition of the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) on-orbit safety mission for commercial satellite owner/operators from the Department of Defense to NOAA marks a shift in the responsibility for the mission of communicating and coordinating civil and commercial SSA data. This effort will entail collaboration with non-government and international partners to shape best practices through transparency and establish an integrated approach to data and information sharing.

In accordance with Space Policy Directive-3, and at the request of the U.S. Congress, NOAA recently provided a demonstration of the cloud-based prototype system to support space traffic awareness data sharing efforts. The cloud-based system known as the SSA Open Architecture Data Repository, or OADR, included support from federally funded research and development centers, including MIT Lincoln Labs, MITRE, and Aerospace to develop and demonstrate NOAA’s transformative prototype.

The fusion of different data sources will help generate improved orbit predictions, identify potential collisions, and provide visualizations and recommended actions for risk mitigation.

“This system prototype allows us to explore how to provide space situational awareness basic services, incorporate diverse sources of data, and offer a platform for academia, government, and industry to innovate,” said Scott Leonard, Technical Director in NOAA’s OSC. “Within the OADR system, we’ll be able to advance the science of our space environment and create new tools and technologies to improve the safety and sustainability in space.”

The colored ellipsoids represent the respective location covariance (area of uncertainty) for two satellites. The ellipsoids overlapping indicate a high probability of collision. Incorporating data from commercial and international partners will help enable OADR to enhance the precision and areas of coverage and alleviate the need for unnecessary maneuvers.

The OADR prototype is designed to digitally integrate existing data from the United States Space Force’s Space Surveillance Network, along with the rising number of commercial services and data providers to strengthen space situational awareness. Additional information provided by satellite owner/operators, international agencies, and others will help reduce areas of uncertainty and present an increasingly precise understanding of where vehicles and debris are in space. The fusion of data sources will generate improved orbit predictions, identify potential collisions, and provide visualizations and recommended actions for risk mitigation.

“The SSA OADR will improve transparency so that all space operators-including international operators-will have the access to data to better understand how conjunction assessment calculations are done,” said Patrick Bauer, Systems Director of Civil Aerospace Programs at Aerospace. “The system will provide actionable information so operators can make assessments and informed decisions on what actions to take.”

This ongoing availability of information and multilateral cooperation will enable the SSA OADR to serve as a trusted source of truth-creating a common baseline of actionable information to increase the probability of success with the actions taken by space operators. Stakeholders will have the ability to leverage the data to appropriately and safely navigate in the busy space environment.

“The system works by sending the space operator a conjunction warning when there is an above-threshold statistical probability their space object is coming into proximity with another space object,” Bauer said. “From a space operator’s perspective, they want to see the math and calculations behind it. So, operational transparency is essential because every time they have to maneuver, they’re expending fuel, and as a result, shortening the life of their satellite mission. They don’t like to do it unless they absolutely have to.”

Shared Solutions for Space’s Most Complex Challenges

With deep technical and policy experience with space traffic coordination issues, Aerospace was uniquely prepared to offer valuable insight and objective feedback on the OADR prototype. When OSC requested technical insight, Aerospace drew from its existing tools, databases, forward-thinking personnel, and other internal capabilities, leveraging the necessary capabilities to intake and process the sensor data — primarily radar and electro-optical telescope data-to perform these conjunction assessment calculations.

“From our long history supporting the space enterprise, Aerospace had all the components to build the SSA OADR system, along with the deep subject matter expertise in understanding the nuances of the space environment and orbital mechanics. Our team integrated the components with modern cloud and system architecture techniques for scalability and modularity,” said Danielle Bernstein, Principal Director of Federal Programs.

Aerospace was able to lead the effort in building the OADR system in less than four months. Personnel also worked with NASA’s Conjunction Assessment and Risk Analysis (CARA) program office and other organizations to validate that the output data produced from the OADR system was accurate when compared to other sources of information.

NOAA’s current goal for the OADR is to reach initial operational capability in 2024 and full operational capability by 2025. The process of the OADR’s creation — from prototype to implementation — is a prime example of government engaging with the commercial space industry to meet its mission needs, and underscores Aerospace’s strong relationship in connecting these two segments of the space enterprise.

“Aerospace is supporting the space industry and driving some of these solutions and partnering more closely with the commercial space industry,” said Bernstein. “It is a best-of-both-worlds arrangement, pairing our existing expertise with new commercial investment and capability to accelerate innovation, solutions, and outcomes. We have a tremendous amount of capacity to understand the challenges in space, which allows us to point companies in the right direction or bridge ideas together to more quickly get the solutions our customers need to meet their mission.”

The Aerospace Corporation is supporting the space enterprise and the broader space community to address these challenges, such as fostering discussions on best practice frameworks and advancing the technical capabilities that demonstrate the art of the possible.

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The Aerospace Corporation

The Aerospace Corporation

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.