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Space Safety: How to Solve the Problem of Orbital Debris?

Space Safety: How to Solve the Problem of Orbital Debris?
The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale (ELSA) program is a spacecraft retrieval service for satellite operators.

Space junk sounds like a cyberpunk problem but is very much a real-world issue today. A couple of months ago, the European Space Agency had to take emergency debris collision avoidance action for its Sentinel-1A satellite, part of the Copernicus radar observatory program.

Orbital Debris Could Cause Collisions

Japanese space technology company Astroscale is working to solve the problem of orbital space objects in conjunction with Ansys Government Initiatives (AGI). We spoke with Cody Short, AGI’s principal astrodynamicist, to learn more about this space safety project.

“According to NASA, there are more than 27,000 pieces of space debris being tracked, but that is only a small amount of what is really out there. Space debris orbits around the Earth at about 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit. It could cause significant damage to a satellite or a spacecraft in case of a collision.”

Some measures have been taken to attempt to resolve the issue, including coating for satellites, but a coordinated approach is needed — and fast.

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According to Short,

“Space is big, but particular orbital slots, especially those of high value, are crowded and becoming increasingly so. As a result, satellite operators must burn expensive fuel meant to sustain the delivery of services and profits to instead move their satellites to safer or more advantageous orbits. Up until now, the way we have operated in space has been bad for the space environment, and bad for space business. But it’s on this unsustainable foundation that we are trying to build a trillion-dollar space economy.”

New Solutions Against Space Junk

ELSA – Pre-launch tests at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in February 2021 (Credit: Astroscale)

Astroscale and Ansys are working together to increase space safety and solve the problem of space debris. Their collaboration includes improving situational awareness, enabling life extension and other on-orbit servicing, and offering end-of-life options with active debris removal. The project is called ELSA (The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale).

Short explains:

“By focusing on developing the technologies, informing the international policies, and building the economics for orbital sustainability, Astroscale is reorienting governments’ and businesses’ long-term decisions. In the end, it is building a sustainable space infrastructure in the process.”

Astroscale is taking two key approaches to the space debris problem.

The first approach is about mitigation and preparation. The idea is to stack a common docking plate so that servicer satellites can remove them at the end of their useful life or in the event of a launch failure.

The second approach is to coordinate removals, in partnership with national governments and space agencies. The idea is to find and target larger pieces of debris that pose some of the highest risks. This might include upper-stage rocket bodies, for example.

ELSA (The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale)

The Role of Digital Simulation in the Fight Against Space Junk

A great part of this work depends on a digital mission engineering application, Ansys Systems Tool Kit, or STK, by engineering company Ansys. According to Short, this digital tool is

“an indispensable digital mission engineering application for the aerospace, defense, telecommunications, and other industries. It features an accurate, physics-based modeling environment to analyze platforms and payloads in a realistic mission context.”

Short adds that Ansys Systems Tool Kit enables the simulation of 

“multidomain scenarios that extend simulation beyond systems to an interactive model of the operational environment.”

Fundamentally, this means that four-dimensional — three-dimensional, plus time — models can be built up to include terrain, imagery, RF environments, and other elements of the environment.

 Short told us more about this digital mission:

“STK extends digital engineering to the mission — the operational environment in which your systems and systems of systems must succeed. While it feels like something that comes at the end of your project’s life cycle — once your system is designed — it’s more than that. Digital mission engineering should be applied early and often, from design through development, test, operations, and sustainment. Uncover problems sooner rather than later and you’ll have a design that excels against your adversaries, ready to deploy far quicker than your competition.”

Astroscale
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