There’s an old belief that our perception of time changes as we get older; it quickens. What used to feel like hours begins to feel like mere minutes.
For us, this rang true in 2022.
This past December, we celebrated our seventh birthday. In human years, this is still considered young, but in startup years, we’re officially transitioning into adulthood. As our CEO Dan Ceperley wrote in November, we’re no longer a “small startup” but a “growing, global company.”
Since 2017, when we unveiled our first fully owned and operated phased-array radar facility, we’ve grown as a team, as a company, and as a leader in Space Traffic Management and Space Situational Awareness. Much of that growth occurred this past year, in what felt like flashes of brilliance, innovation, and leadership colliding to create a vigorous energy that propelled us to achieve goals we only just imagined. So, before we say goodbye to 2022, we’re excited to list a few of our milestones and achievements.
Welcomed new experts
We were thrilled to welcome dozens of new team members across the organization, from sales and marketing to operations and engineering. In particular, the inclusion of world-renowned experts have elevated the quality of the data and insights we share with our customers and the public. Curious what we mean? Check out LeoPulse, where these experts share analysis and insights that you can’t find anywhere else.
P.s. Our annual review of LEO will be published in mid-January. Sign up today for our newsletter so you don’t miss it.
Provided humanitarian aid for Ukraine
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, we joined the Space Industry for Ukraine (SIFU) initiative, contributing money to provide immediate humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine. By early December, the funds raised by this initiative — around $895,000 — were used to assist over 247,000 refugees and support 9,500 evacuations. These funds were also used to deliver heating supplies to 103 families and more than two million pounds of additional aid across Ukraine.
Supported reducing space debris
Throughout 2022, our experts have taken the opportunity to speak out about the increasing threats posed by space debris in LEO and have suggested measures to help mitigate the risk of collisions. This included supporting the US Federal Communication Commission’s 5-year-rule change for de-orbiting dead satellites and the growing calls to ban anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) tests. Our Senior Technical Fellow Dr Darren McKnight and LeoLabs Australia President Terry van Haren also recently signed the Outer Space Institute’s international open letter calling for “reducing risks from uncontrolled reentries of rocket bodies.”
Won new government customers
We received two significant government awards this year. The first is an award to support the Japan Air Self Defense Force with Space Domain Awareness (SDA) data, services, and training generated from our growing global network of phased array radars and in-house expertise. The second award is to provide data and services to the United States Department of Commerce to support the development of a national, civil-led Space Traffic Management (STM) system. Both awards confirm our position as the world’s leading commercial provider of low Earth orbit (LEO) mapping and Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services.
Freshened up our look
As you may have noticed, we’ve got a new look. In early December, we shared our new branding, which includes an updated logo, revised brand colors, a bold mission statement, a more fluid website, and more. This rebranding effort reflects our transition into “adulthood” as we embrace our growing role as a leader in today’s dynamic space era. Plus, it’s pretty fresh. (If you haven’t checked out what’s new yet, take a peek here.)
Unveiled LeoLabs Vertex™
Finally, as part of our rebrand, we unveiled LeoLabs Vertex™ — the world’s first vertically integrated commercial space operations stack tracking LEO at scale. LeoLabs Vertex™ is the backbone of our operational infrastructure, enabling us to track resident space objects and characterize events for our customers.
This system includes our global radar network, our cloud data platform, and our newly branded, comprehensive product suite.
Looking forward: here’s to the year ahead
Now that we’ve had a quick look back at this year, it’s time to take a small step forward into the next. In 2023, we’ll expand our global radar network (exciting updates coming soon!), as well as elevate our software stack and service levels. We’ll also work with our customers to identify additional SDA and STM services and products that can help fulfill the needs of the burgeoning space industry.
And with that, it’s almost time to say “thank you, next” to 2022. Before we do that, however, we’d like to leave a special note for our team and our customers: thanks for growing older and wiser with us, we can’t wait to speed through another year with you.
We wish you all a happy New Year! 🎉
Space safety and sustainability are complicated topics with tough questions — but there’s one question that matters most: how do we keep space clean?
Space safety and sustainability are complicated topics, touching on various technical, political, and legal questions. But there’s one question that matters most: how do we keep space clean?
First, we need to understand that there are only two types of human-made objects residing in low Earth orbit: those that serve a current purpose and those that don’t. Those that serve a purpose are operational satellites and spacecraft, such as the International Space Station, earth imaging systems, and communication payloads. Their power’s turned on, they’re transmitting data to their teams on the ground, and they’re fulfilling their intended mission every day.
“There’s far more space junk currently in low Earth orbit than there are operational satellites…we must take special care to maintain a safe operating environment for operational satellites for years and decades to come.”
Then there are the objects still in orbit that no longer serve a purpose. There’s another name for these: space junk. This includes debris fragments, rocket bodies, and defunct satellites. Unfortunately, there’s far more space junk currently in low Earth orbit than there are operational satellites. That means we must take special care to maintain a safe operating environment for operational satellites for years and decades to come. To do that, we must minimize the amount of space junk added to LEO over the long term.
Towards that end, let’s consider three best practices for combating space debris:
• Collision Avoidance
• Debris Mitigation
• Debris Remediation
First up? Collision avoidance.
For a satellite owner-operator, Collision Avoidance means taking an active approach in ensuring their satellites don’t collide with other objects. This is tied to Space Traffic Management, a term you may have heard before. The goal of Space Traffic Management is to ensure that satellites and spacecraft can operate safely in orbit and not collide with other objects. Satellites that are maneuverable can and do fire their thrusters periodically to mitigate the risk of getting hit by other objects in space, especially when they pass within a close range of one another. But these operational satellites only account for a fraction of the total objects in low Earth orbit, which means that STM only addresses a relatively small percentage of the total conjunctions, or “close approaches,” occurring each day. But in LEO, any random object can hit any other random object, so how do we address this risk in the long term?
This is where Space Environment Management comes in, a phrase coined by LeoLabs Senior Technical Fellow Dr. Darren McKnight and ClearSpace CTO Dr. Tim Maclay in a 2019 research paper.
Whereas Space Traffic Management can be thought of as a continuous, daily activity integrated into the operational workflow of satellite owner-operators, Space Environment Management is more preventative and proactive in nature. Think of it this way: Space Traffic Management says, “Avoid that piece of debris today.” While Space Environment Management says, “Let’s keep space clean now to ensure less debris is generated in the future.”
OK, now let’s turn our attention to best practices number 2 and 3. Both of which fall under the umbrella of Space Environment Management.
Debris mitigation means taking proactive steps to prevent the creation of debris later down the road. Examples of this include designing spacecraft with appropriate shielding to mitigate against threats of collisions from small debris. In addition, spacecraft can be designed to prevent systems, such as batteries or fuel tanks, from rupturing. Finally, owner-operators can also make sure their satellites de-orbit soon after their job is done.
Historically, owner-operators were required to de-orbit their satellites a maximum of 25 years after they became non-operational. The US Federal Communications Commission recently changed this de-orbit maximum time to 5 years to more efficiently mitigate the growth of debris in LEO.
Debris remediation refers to removing existing debris from orbit to clean the space environment today, which also serves to lessen the chances of collisions in the future. If Debris Mitigation says, “Don’t make a mess,” Debris Remediation says, “Clean up your mess.”
In the realm of possible conjunction events, the category of “junk vs. junk” (or one random defunct object colliding with another) is in fact the most statistically concerning and the most likely to happen next. That reality has led commercial companies, such as ClearSpace and Astroscale, to develop exciting technologies around Active Debris Removal to de-orbit defunct satellites and dangerous rocket bodies.
As the two rules above indicate, although Space Traffic Management and Space Environment Management are separate in premise, they are tightly interconnected. By practicing effective Space Environment Management today, it will make Space Traffic Management that much more efficient and manageable tomorrow. Likewise, Space Traffic Management is itself a form of Space Environment Management, as it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent collisions and the generation of new debris.
A bottle of soda sits on the edge of a table, what do you do?
Let’s summarize with one final analogy. You’re in your living room with a bottle of soda sitting precariously close to the edge of your coffee table. The soda used to serve a purpose: it was a tasty beverage, but you only drank half of it and now it’s a two-day old, flat soda with a fly in it. You sure as heck aren’t going to drink it anymore. And oops, the cap is also off the bottle. Disaster awaits.
This scenario is addressable with actions geared toward Avoidance, Mitigation, and Remediation.
Avoidance says, “I should pay attention so I don’t knock that bottle over, because if I do, it’s going to make a giant mess.”
Mitigation says, “I better put the cap back on the bottle, so in case I do knock it over, it won’t make a mess.”
Remediation says, “You know what, I was done with this drink two days ago and now it’s just cluttering up my table. Plus, I might accidentally knock it over any minute. I probably should have done this earlier, but I’m finally going to throw it away (or better yet, recycle it).”
“Collision avoidance, debris mitigation, and debris remediation are our way of avoiding the ultimate bad outcome in space: creating an environment that doesn’t allow for the safe operation of satellites, which have become essential for a thriving space economy.”
All three actions are aimed at avoiding the ultimate bad outcome — knocking that bottle over and spilling soda on your beautiful white carpet, leaving a permanent stain.
Collision avoidance, debris mitigation, and debris remediation are our way of avoiding the ultimate bad outcome in space: creating an environment that doesn’t allow for the safe operation of satellites, which have become essential for a thriving space economy.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the importance of Space Situational Awareness, which entails tracking all those objects that aren’t transmitting signals. That’s what we do here at LeoLabs. Space Situational Awareness capabilities provide the foundation in which effective Space Traffic Management and Space Environment Management are possible. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to keep space clean.
For decades, low Earth orbit has grown cluttered — now is the time to stop that trend in its tracks. Thankfully, we increasingly have the tools, and the will, to do so.
More of a visual learner? We’ve got you covered. Download this infographic.
And that’s all for now folks!
Stay tuned for the 4th edition of LeoPulse coming out in mid-January, which will be a special review of everything that happened in low Earth orbit in 2022. If you haven’t signed up for our newsletter yet, please do so you don’t miss the next edition. Have a suggestion about what we should cover? Let us know by emailing our editor Victoria Heath at email@example.com with the subject line: LeoPulse suggestion.
Note: The findings shared in this report and infographic are derived from the hundreds of thousands of data products LeoLabs’ global network of phased array radars collects daily.
Join us as we follow a space object through a sequence of risk calculations to better understand the significance of collision risk in LEO.
LeoLabs operates six space radar sites around the globe, and its latest addition in Collie is just weeks away from firing up.
LeoLabs has completed construction of their sixth space radar site in Collie, Western Australia, naming it the West Australian Space Radar (WASR).
The collision risk in low Earth orbit (LEO) can be a confusing mix of terms and equations. To better understand the importance of collision risk for the short-term safety of operational constellations and long-term sustainability of LEO, we will follow an individual space object through a sequence of risk calculations. This process will clarify and highlight the need for continuous monitoring and characterizing of all components of the LEO space population in order to catalyze actions to control the growth of debris.
Key characters in our story
On May 22, 1990, the Soviet Union launched Cosmos 2082, an Electronics Intelligence (ELINT) satellite with a mass of 3,250 kg, into an 850 km circular orbit. The Zenit-2 launch vehicle (also called SL-16) deployed this satellite and the upper stage from this launch vehicle was left in a similar orbit to Cosmos 2082. Cosmos 2082 has the International Designator (INTLDES) 1990–46A (i.e., the primary object of the 46th launch of 1990) and the NORAD ID 20624 (i.e., the 20,624th object cataloged by the 18th Space Defense Squadron of the United States Space Force). The SL-16 rocket body has a mass of 9,000 kg, is roughly 11 m in length, and has a diameter of 4 m. Its INTLDES is 1990–46B and Satellite Number 20625.
The practice of leaving a rocket body along with a deployed payload was used by many space operators in the 1980s and 1990s. Both objects have now been in orbit for over 32 years, circling the globe over 165,000 times. The distance these two objects have traveled is just under eight billion km; this is equivalent to a round trip from the Sun to Pluto and back!
The plot thickens
On 5 June 2022, the S-16 R/B 20625 was involved in a close approach with another derelict rocket body, the 37 kg Scout X-4 upper stage, deposited in LEO in 1964 by the United States to deploy Explorer 25 (INJUN-4). The Conjunction Analysis Report, provided by LeoLabs, details this conjunction of 500 m (+/- 100 m) miss distance with a relative velocity of 8.7 km/s (i.e., ~17,000 mph), and a probability of collision (PC) of 1.3E-3 (i.e., ~1/800 chance).
While this may seem like a low probability, typically an operational spacecraft in LEO will take evasive actions if an encounter has a PC greater than 1E-5 (i.e., a hundred times less likely than the close approach that occurred in June).¹
The Conjunction Analysis Report summarizes what is included in a Conjunction Data Message (CDM). The figure below depicts how the CDM provides the PC between two distinct objects for one specific encounter.
Further, so far in 2022, object 20625 has been involved in a total of eight events with a PC greater than 1E-5, shown in the table below from the LeoLabs platform.
That large number of high PC conjunctions shown above is only the tip of the iceberg. During the first nine months of 2022, there were 298 conjunctions with a PC greater than 1E-6 for this specific SL-16 R/B. The distribution of the objects 20625 is encountering in orbit over time is shown in the figure below, produced by the LeoLabs mapping tool. While most of the encounters are with fragments, there were nine events with operational payloads and two with rocket bodies. This hints at the larger perspective of all objects in the vicinity of our SL-16 RB 20625 posing a collision risk to this massive derelict.
Statistical Probability of Collision (PC)
The statistical PC for a single object from all of the resident space objects that might cross the object’s altitude is determined using an equation that considers the object’s size (i.e., collision cross-section) multiplied by the spatial density of other objects (i.e., number of objects per cubic kilometer) multiplied by the relative velocity between these objects (~12 km/s in LEO).²
LeoRisk, a LeoLabs product, provides a way to determine the statistical annual PC levels and what objects contribute to the collisional hazard for any object in LEO. As shown in the figure below, the types of objects 20625 encounters throughout the course of the year to reach 1.57E-3 PC, statistically, are very similar to the distribution of objects from the CDMs issued during the first nine months of 2022. Note that the summation of the CDM PC values will not necessarily be equal to the statistical PC level over a short time period, such as a year or two. In fact, it may take a decade or more for these values to line up, if at all.
The consequence of some of these events with 20625 may range from minor to very consequential. For example, a fragment impact on 20625 may create hundreds of pieces of debris while a collision between 20625 and the Tselina-2 satellite (20624) that it deployed would likely create over 15,000 cataloged fragments and many more lethal, small debris that are not yet trackable. Now, let’s examine how likely it is for these massive objects (i.e., SL-16 RBs and non-operational Tselina-2 satellites) to collide in LEO.
Cluster 850 as a hotspot in LEO
The original characters in this risk story, 20624 and 20625, were part of a larger deployment by the Soviets Union and eventually, the Russian Federation. In total, from 1985 to 2007, 18 ELINT satellites and their associated 18 SL-16 upper stages were deposited between 825 and 865 km. While our previous collision hazard calculations examined either a single event between two objects against each other (i.e., a CDM) or an annual risk for one object vs all other space objects it could possibly encounter (i.e., statistical PC), a collision rate (CR) can be determined among any subset of objects. In this case, that subset is these 36 massive objects deposited centered around 850 that we call Cluster 850 (C850).
This dynamic is depicted in the figure below.
These 36 objects alone amount to 208,000 kg, which is equivalent to over 50,000 3U CubeSats. CR is a relevant concept when any collision event amongst a population is meaningful.³ In this case, the catastrophic collision between any two objects in C850 would likely create over 15,000 cataloged fragments — nearly doubling the LEO fragment population in one instance. This debris would likely be spread over many hundreds of kilometers. For example, the debris cloud from the fragmentation of the Chinese Feng-yun 1C satellite in 2007 at 860 km has been regularly involved in conjunctions at altitudes as low as 300 km and as high as 1,400 km in 2022. It is also important to note that debris created at these altitudes will linger for centuries.
The current annual collision rate within C850 is 1.7E-3 (i.e., a 1/580 chance each year). The importance of C850, however, is amplified when we remember this ensemble of derelict mass has been whizzing past each other for decades (i.e., to Pluto and back). Taking this into account, the probability that the first collision between these objects could have occurred by 2022 is 5–6%. By 2040, this expectation will increase to 8–9% without any intervention such as removing some of these objects. The 18 SL-16 RBs in C850 have been highlighted on numerous occasions as posing a significant debris-generating potential in LEO and have been identified as 18 of the top 50 objects that should be removed from LEO.⁴
The “big picture”
Satellite 20625’s 32-year transit around Earth highlights how much of LEO is accumulating numbers and mass of debris that are mathematically a ticking time bomb, and the global aerospace community must cooperatively work to manage the situation. The three primary means to control the debris collision risk in LEO are reflected in the three main chapters of our story:
💬 Conjunction Data Messages (CDMs) are the currency for timely and effective space traffic management. While our main character — the massive derelict rocket body — cannot execute collision avoidance maneuvers, most of the over 5,000 operational payloads in LEO can act on these warnings.
⚠️ Statistical probability of collision highlights the need to stop adding debris to LEO (i.e., debris mitigation).
🚀 The collision rate between clusters of massive derelicts amplifies the need for debris remediation (i.e., active debris removal).
The continual discussion of these facts and figures, we hope, will help motivate policymakers, regulators, space operators, and international military services to act responsibly to preserve the space environment for the generations to come. Tamara, a student from Williamston High School in Michigan and a member of the next generation, eloquently stated in a letter to LeoLabs: “The longer that the government waits to help solve this problem, the more debris there will be in orbit.”
The entire “collision risk story” can be captured in the figure below and is representative of the multi-dimensional debris collision risk challenges posed in LEO. Although complicated, these “stories” are important to tell because continual high-frequency monitoring and analytic characterization of conjunction dynamics in LEO can catalyze responsible actions by the global space community—and that’s exactly what we’re working towards at LeoLabs.
- So far in 2022, there have been over 20,000 close approaches in LEO where the PC has exceeded 1E-5.
- PC = 1-eλt where λ = collision cross-section (km2)*relative velocity (km/s)*spatial density (#/km3) and t is time (s)
- CR = (N2/2)*collision cross-section (km2)*relative velocity (km/s)*relative velocity (km/s)*time (sec)/Volume of altitude expanse of cluster (km3) where N is the number of objects in the cluster
- McKnight, et al, “Identifying the 50 Statistically-Most-Concerning Derelict Objects in LEO,” 71st International Astronautical Congress (IAC) — The CyberSpace Edition, Dubai, UAE, October 20 and McKnight, D., Dale, E., Bhatia, R., Kunstadter, C., Stevenson, M., and Patel, M., “A Map of the Statistical Collision Risk in LEO”, 73rd International Astronautical Congress, Paris, France, September 2022
This piece was written by LeoLabs Senior Technical Fellow Dr. Darren McKnight with support from LeoLabs’ Data Analytics Team. The featured image is Cosmos 389 ELINT by Brian W. McMullin, 1982 (Public Domain). Cosmos 389 was the first in a series of “ferret” satellites that performed Soviet-era electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions. This satellite was the predecessor to Cosmos 2082, the main character in our story.