In 1957, when Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite and kicked off the global space race, thousands of space launches since then have led to millions of pieces of orbital junk flying in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), a narrow band of outer space about 200 to 1,000km above Earth’s surface.
Most space debris is pieces of spacecraft, solidified liquids, or even paint flecks expelled from a spacecraft, parts of rockets, and derelict satellites.
Moving at the speed of a bullet, this space junk which is smaller than an iPhone 12, ranging from 1 cm to 10 cm can destroy working satellites used for weather forecasting, GPS data, or internet connectivity. Existing tracking systems such as ground-based radars and telescopes can only track particles larger than 10 cm. There are likely 900,000 pieces of junk between 1 cm and 10 cm, and tens of millions of objects smaller than 1 cm that are untracked but capable of causing significant damage.
“The main risks and costs lie in the future…” a 2020 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the economic cost of space debris states.
“For satellites in geostationary orbit, the OECD reports that such costs amount to an estimated 5–10% of the total mission costs, which could be hundreds of millions of dollars. In Low Earth Orbit, the relative cost per mission could be even higher than 5–10%.”
Finding needle in the hay
In the last few years, a few Indian space-tech startups have taken the onus of monitoring and sending real time information to space shuttles about the minuscule debris floating in space.
Bengaluru-based startup Digantara is one of them. Founded by three young engineers, all in their 20s, the startup is developing India’s first space-based surveillance platform to track space debris and provide Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data. SSA involves tracking of space objects, understanding their activities, monitoring space weather events, and identifying potential threats to space activities.
“Our patented in-orbit debris tracker is a hardware and software-based system. The hardware, attached to a nanosatellite that will go into space, has a laser detector that can track objects as small as one cm in size. The data is transmitted to the Earth and processed to predict the future trajectory of the object,” Anirudh Sharma, co-founder and CEO, Digantara, told KrASIA.
Satellites can use this data to navigate safely through space and avoid potential collisions, Tanveer Ahmed, co-founder and CTO of Digantara, said. The team will test their system in space by launching one satellite, out of a constellation of 40 nanosatellites, between December 2021 and February 2022.
“We will send one nanosatellite, complete with the in-orbit tracking device, into a specific area in space where debris, around 10 cm in size, have already been tracked and documented by ground-based systems,” Rahul Rawat, co-founder and COO, Digantara, said.
Sharma adds that if the system is able to identify the same objects accurately in the pre-mapped debris area, the mission will be successful.
If successful, the yet-to-be-named mission could pave the way for future commercial services, which includes selling the data to satellite companies, as well as space insurance companies for satellites.
Opposed to the industry practice of using ground-based radar technology, Digantara uses Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology to locate debris. LIDAR uses laser to determine the distance of the debris from the Earth based on the time it takes for the laser to reflect from the object. Impressed by its unique approach, the Bengaluru-based Society for Innovation Development (SID) decided to incubate the firm in 2020 and wrote a check of INR 2.5 million (USD 33,450) as a grant. SID works with startups and mid-sized enterprises to help them find their niche in deep science solutions.
The company also received INR 2.5 million from the Indian government to speed up its research.
Digantara founders are not the only ones racing to develop a system to track and monitor space debris in India. Two computer scientists, Dr. Sanat K Biswas and Dr. Arun Balaji Buduru, are working on a project titled ‘Orbit Computation of Resident Space Objects for Space Situational Awareness.’
The project is funded by the National Supercomputing Mission (NSM) that aims at creating a powerful supercomputing capability for India. Starting this year, NSM will fund the project for two years, and its outcome will alert users to potential collisions between satellites and orbital junk bigger than 10 cm in size.
“With ever-increasing space missions, mega-constellations, the possibility of such collisions is increasing day by day. To prevent the collision of active satellites with space debris, it is extremely important to develop an operationally flexible, scalable solution to predict the collision probability in advance so that necessary action can be taken,” Dr Biswas told KrASIA. He has been working on space vehicle navigation, orbit determination and associated domains for almost a decade.
“Additionally, we plan to design the software in such a way that all possible observations be it space-based or ground-based can be easily integrated in future for much better accuracy.”
Handling debris data
Space debris information is currently shared by the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN). However, the source and uncertainty associated with the data are not shared. India uses SSN data and performs further enhancement of the data using its own optical and radar sensors for collision probability analysis for launches, Dr Biswas said.
The national-level stakeholders—the Department of Space (DoS), the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting—require SSA for decision-making purposes.
“The outcome of the project will reduce India’s dependency on international bodies for critical SSA analytics. The major advantage of the solution will be better accuracy and computational efficiency,” adds Dr Biswas.
The market to create space-tech products in India is worth USD 7 billion (INR 51 crore) and is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years. With the growing interest of the private sector in space-based services in India, space assets of Indian private corporations will increase.
“The outcome of the proposed research will deliver timely and precise intelligence on space traffic, collision avoidance and navigation services through mission-specific reports and recommendations as well as actionable tasks,” said Dr Biswas.
To reduce India’s dependence on foreign space organizations, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) recently launched the Network for Space Objects, Tracking, and Analysis (NETRA) project to cater to national SSA requirements. The project is currently at the development stage.
The new push from the India government allowing the private sector to carry out space activities, and opening access to ISRO’s facilities, has been encouraging for space tech companies. In June 2020, India approved the creation of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), to act as a link between ISRO and private sector companies. The organization assesses how private companies can utilize India’s space resources and increase space-based activities.
C S Murali, chairman, STEM Cell, Society for Innovation and Development at Indian Institute of Science, said, that although these norms have yet to be legislated formally and change will take time to be evident, it has increased interest and confidence for investors to invest in this sector. “Over time, it will allow more companies in the space sector from India and allow Indian companies to use facilities built by ISRO.”
Hyderabad-based Skyroot Aerospace, founded by two former ISRO scientists in 2018, is targeting the test-launch of its ‘Vikram’ series of rockets to send satellites into space early next year. “For that, all hardware, propulsion will be tested at ISRO,” Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO, Skyroot Aerospace, says.
Chanadana added that due to national security concerns, no space activity can take place without government supervision and hand holding. “The new space law is fantastic as it allows us to utilize existing facilities at ISRO for testing and launching as well as get regulatory approvals for launches. This reduces our time and cost to get to market while increasing investor interest as well,” Chandana said.
“On demand availability of launch vehicles at affordable price is one of the greatest bottlenecks for small satellite companies planning constellations, said Naga Bharath Daka, co-founder & COO, Skyroot Aerospace. “Built on common architecture and covering a wide range of payloads, our cost efficiency, and speed of execution is what sets us apart from our competitors.”
Skyroot, which competes with homegrown startup Agnikul, UK-based Orbex, and U.S.-based Rocket lab and Virgin Orbit, has raised USD 4.3 million from Solar Industries, Mukesh Bansal, founder of CureFit, and a few other angel investors.
According to Chandana, globally, the size of the space vehicle launch market is set to be worth USD 32 billion by 2027.
“To be globally recognized, we need to be able to launch quickly. That can be enabled by investors with deep pockets and commitment to our mission, and quick approvals from the government,” said Daka.