TAMPA, Fla. — Three young European space companies announced Jan. 9 that they have teamed up to test a collision avoidance system on a small satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO) this year.
The partners plan to use data from Portuguese space traffic management (STM) company Neuraspace to guide electric thrusters developed by Spain’s Ienai Space on a cubesat built by Bulgaria-based Endurosat.
The satellite, the size of 12 cubesats, is expected to hitch a ride on the second launch of German company Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum rocket, which is expected to debut earlier in 2023.
Once in orbit, the thrusters would be able to respond to simulated and actual collision warnings and maneuver suggestions from Neuraspace’s STM platform.
The number of conjunction alerts in critical orbits has increased fivefold in recent years as a record number of satellites are sent around Earth, Neuraspace director Chiara Manfletti said in an interview.
This led to “a nine-fold effort to examine maneuvers – whether a conjunction is really going to happen or not”.
Neuraspace’s machine learning algorithms aggregate space tracking data from commercial partnerships and publicly available sources to reduce this burden on operators and reduce unnecessary maneuvering.
The company secured its first commercial contract on Dec. 29 with an undisclosed client, according to Manfletti.
She said Neuraspace has seven other pilot customers that “will be setting up something like over 400” satellites in total over the next two years.
Most of them are LEO constellation builders for applications such as Earth observation and telecommunications.
“We are demonstrating our capabilities right now,” she added, “but we want to improve our maneuvering strategies and that’s what this mission is going to allow us to do.”
While Neuraspace currently uses human operators on Earth to facilitate guidance produced by its artificial intelligence, the company eventually plans to integrate its software onboard satellites for autonomous maneuverability.
By pairing the brains of Neurspace with the muscle provided by Ienai’s thrusters, the companies hope to one day overcome the computational and power limitations that hamper automatic collision avoidance maneuvers on small satellites.
Improving the quality and scope of spatial tracking data will also be necessary, as will building trust with operators.
“You must first establish a relationship of trust with an operator and the owner of the satellite [that] you’re not going to do anything crazy with it,” Manfletti said.
“But if there’s that trust, there’s an option in our [current, terrestrial-based] workflow where the command can be automatically uploaded to the spacecraft or interface directly with the operating software they are using.
Despite SpaceX’s use of electric thrusters to steer Starlink satellites away from debris from the Russian anti-satellite test in 2021, Ienai CEO Daniel Pérez said there is also “still a question about the industry “to know if the propulsion technology “can actually work in the event of a collision”. avoidance.”
The mission is among other thruster demonstrations that Ienai is planning in 2023 on increasingly larger satellites after its first in-orbit demonstration last year.
Other EnduroSat customer payloads will also be on the mission, according to the Bulgarian manufacturer, which deployed its first satellite in 2018.