Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI) is confident that its Commercial Space Operations Center (ComSpOC) will grow by the end of 2016 to track the same number of objects in space as can be found in the Defense Department’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC).
ComSpOC, through AGI and partners, has 70 telescopes aimed primarily at geostationary earth orbit (GEO) today, along with two radar sensors for low earth orbit (LEO). With this sensor network, the company provides space situational awareness (SSA) services such as high definition ephemeris, safety of flight information and geolocation support for radio frequency (RF) interference mitigation, among others.
Paul Welsh, vice president of AGI, told Defense Daily sister publication Via Satellite the company is now tracking about 9,000 resident space objects (RSO) and has all large ones in GEO identified. By repurposing a 46-meter radio astronomy antenna in Canada, the company anticipates bolstering its SSA capabilities by a considerable amount.
JSpOC’s public catalog includes more than 16,000 objects, the majority of which are space debris. The organization takes hundreds of thousands of observations using a global system of 30 sensors known as the Space Surveillance Network (SSN). Welsh said ComSpOC, with the new radio observatory, will be able to track RSOs down to 10 cm in size.
“At that point, we will have enough time and coverage that we will match in our catalog the amount of objects that are in the public catalog, and we will be going beyond that,” Welsh said. “With that radar, we will be able to track objects that are not detectable by other radars right now.”
ComSpOC is one of a growing number of endeavors to provide SSA services commercially. Welsh said the company has a mix of customers in the commercial and government sectors and that those customers are not solely in the U.S.
“If you had asked me four years ago, I would have said it was all governments,” Brian Weeden, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), told Via Satellite. “But things have changed a lot in just the last few years. There are now at least a dozen commercial companies I know of who are either currently offering SSA data or services, or have plans to do so in the near future — and I bet there are more I’m not yet aware of.”
Weeden said DoD currently does the most extensive tracking of space objects, but that the need for more robust SSA data is growing. He said Europe and Russia are both increasing their SSA capabilities and that Japan is also actively looking at boosting its own network. He estimated there are roughly 25,000 objects bigger than 10 cm that are tracked “fairly well,” but said there is a lot of room for improvement.
“The need for SSA data is going to grow tremendously,” Weeden said. “The U.S. military’s tracking network is already stretched thin and has some pretty significant gaps in coverage. Plus, it can’t track the smaller objects. With plans to potentially launch thousands of new satellites over the next several years, we are going to need a lot more data and from a lot more diverse sources of data than we have now in order to keep using space in a safe and efficient manner.”
Welsh said AGI got the idea for ComSpOC roughly seven years ago, when the U.S. budget crunch was driving the need for alternatives to costly programs. Economic conditions put pressure on government-supported SSA for several years, even leading to the cancellation of the Air Force Space Surveillance System (AFSSS) in 2013. The Space Fence — a network of next generation S-band radar telescopes for SSA — is under construction today to replace the AFSSS. Lockheed Martin [LMT] is building the system, having recently completed a test site in New Jersey, with initial operating capability (IOC) scheduled for late 2018.
However, even though public funding has increased for SSA within the U.S., Welsh sees opportunity for commercial players.
“Like how the market evolved in the remote sensing industry, we look at it the same way with the SSA business,” he said. “Remote sensing was pioneered by the U.S. government and then technological maturity evolved to the point where it was viable for commercial companies to step in and offer that service. When commercial companies do that, they can do it more competitively and at a better price point.”
He added that ComSpOC is sufficiently differentiated from JSpOC as well.
“JSpOC is a military organization doing a military mission,” Welsh said. “We are a commercial organization also generating SSA data and our potential customers include military organizations, intelligence communities, civil space agencies, commercial operators and allied governments. Really anyone who has a need for data services related to general SSA we believe there is a business to be made out of that.”
Welsh said JSpOC could also be a customer of ComSpOC. He estimated that ComSpOC tracks about 50 percent of LEO objects found in the public catalog. AGI is adding a third radar dish to better track LEO objects later this year, according to Welsh.
A much higher percentage of space debris is concentrated in LEO. Weeden said the biggest risk to preserving the cis-lunar space environment today is that of more collisions in LEO, particularly the region between 700 and 900 km. This would create more debris and increase the risk of future collisions. Welsh said AGI has plans to build more sensors that will ramp up ComSpOC’s coverage of LEO in the coming years.
“We have a plan in a few more years to deploy three to five L-band radars,” he said. “Those three to five L-band radars will be able to track objects that are much smaller in size: down to two centimeters. Current radars and the general catalog go down to about 10 centimeters in size. Estimates of what’s in space that are two centimeters and larger are around 200,000. So when we deploy these radars, our catalog size will grow to 200,000 … the majority of that growth would be in LEO.”
Currently, ComSpOC’s network is comprised of optical, radar and passive RF sensors. The latter two can operate 24/7, but optical telescopes are limited to functioning at night. Welsh said ComSpOC is interested in space-based sensors as well.
“We are in talks with multiple companies that are going to be putting space based optical sensors up, so when those are online we will be able to process those as well,” he added.
Optical SSA satellites could look down on the GEO arc and not be blinded by the sun, potentially enabling ubiquitous coverage.