European firms partner for LEO collision avoidance demo

TAMPA, Fla. — Three young European space companies said Jan. 9 they have teamed up to test a collision avoidance system on a small satellite this year in low Earth orbit (LEO).

The partners plan to use data from Portuguese space traffic management company Neuraspace to guide electric thrusters developed by Spain’s Ienai Space on a cubesat built by Endurosat, based in Bulgaria.

The satellite, the size of 12 cubesats, will have a ride on the second launch of Germany-based Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum rocket, which is scheduled to debut earlier in 2023.

Once in orbit, the thrusters will be able to respond to simulated and real collision warnings and maneuver suggestions from Neuraspace’s STM platform.

The amount of conjunction alerts in critical orbits has risen fivefold in recent years as a record number of satellites are launched around the Earth, Neuraspace director Chiara Manfletti said in an interview.

That has led to “a ninefold effort to look at 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 manoeuvres.

The company secured its first commercial contract on Dec. 29 with an undisclosed customer, according to Manfletti.

She said Neuraspace has seven other pilot customers that are “going to put up something like 400-plus” satellites in total over the next couple of years.

Most of them are constellation builders in LEO for applications including Earth observation and telecommunications.

“We are demonstrating our capabilities as we speak,” she added, “but we want to improve our maneuvering strategies, and this is what this mission will enable us to do.”

While Neuraspace currently uses human operators on Earth to facilitate the guidance its artificial intelligence produces, the company eventually plans to integrate the software aboard satellites for autonomous maneuverability.

By marrying Neuraspace’s brains with the muscle of Ienai’s thrusters, the companies hope to one day overcome the computing and power limitations that hold back automatic collision avoidance maneuvers on small satellites.

It will also be necessary to improve the quality and scope of space tracking data, and it will also build confidence among operators.

“You first have to build 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 confidence, it’s an option this spring [current, terrestrial-based] workflow where the command can be uploaded to the spacecraft automatically, or interface directly with whatever operations software they use.”

Despite SpaceX’s use of electric thrusters to steer Starlink satellites away from debris from Russia’s anti-satellite test in 2021, Ienai CEO Daniel Pérez said it is also “still a question in the industry” whether the propulsion technology “can really work in cases of collision avoidance.”

The mission is part of other thruster demonstrations Ienai is planning in 2023 on increasingly large satellites after its first demonstration in orbit last year.

Other EnduroSat customer payloads will also join the mission, according to the Bulgarian manufacturer, which deployed its first satellite in 2018.

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