In space, nobody can hear you scream, but they can on the ground when it involves figuring out what’s going on in space.
A gaggle of Australian companies and research groups joined with the Australian Defence Force this November to help solve a global problem: orbital traffic.
They were part of a US-led wargame called Sprint Advanced Concept Training (SACT). Saber Astronautics has been their Pacific regional leader since 2020. It’s a collaboration of nations brought together to untangle an incomplete map of converging trajectories, solar storms and debris reefs.
They had one goal, says Saber CEO Dr Jason Held: “We tell people is it’s okay to suck. Just suck less next time.”
Cosmos Weekly was invited to observe the Pacific Cell’s operations. Two similar cells took over the rotation as the sun rose over Europe and the Americas.
A 48-hour, real-time set of orbital mysteries and crises was at its core. It was intense. It was slow. It was supercharged by moments of revelation.
Some situations were simulations. Some were real.
And everyone, from small commercial tech startups to national defence force commands, had to find new ways of working together to keep vital space infrastructure safe.
For some, it was a rude awakening.
“Everybody in the room understands what it was like to be in their shoes because we were all in their shoes only recently,” says Held. “Even the primes started out trying to figure out what’s happening with a specific satellite and screaming “where’s that bird? I’ve lost that bird”. Everybody has said that at some point in the exercise.”
Saber Astronautics became one of the first commercial participants in the SACT event in 2017. It went on to win the contract to operate the Australian Space Agency’s mission control centre, which opened in Adelaide in 2021.
It’s been leading SACT’s Pacific Cell – made up of New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Australia – ever since.
“We’re watching a system growing from scratch, from literally nothing into something,” Held says. “And nobody knows what that something is”.
But it is evolving. Fast.
Necessity is the mother of innovation.
2019 began with almost 5000 satellites in orbit. Only 1900 were active.
By January 2022, that number had blown out to 8200. About half, some 4800, were in use.
It’s expected there will be 100,000 objects hurtling about over our heads by 2030.
But Held says progress is being made towards managing all this traffic.
“Every time we do it, things get a little bit less chaotic,” he says. “Every time, we try new things that have never been done before.”
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) was once the domain of a handful of secret spy satellites and the odd orbital experiment. Tracking what was going on was something only major militaries were interested in.
Read more: On the crowded autobahns of near earth space, how can we prevent bingles when satellites merge?
That’s why SACT was initially a top-secret US Strategic Command exercise. But, as more nations – and corporations – began launching satellites, the workload quickly began to skyrocket.
“Now the US military says; “we want to be space warriors, not space traffic cops”. But we don’t yet know what a civilian space traffic centre looks like,” Dr Held explains.
Aircraft and shipping rules don’t apply. Largely because territorial boundaries don’t extend above the atmosphere. But both have demonstrated the need for international cooperation to avoid crises.
One foundation stone for such cooperation is in place; Whatever nation launches an object remains responsible for it.
The United States licenced the unpressurised trunk from Elon Musk’s November 2020 SpaceX capsule launch. When it fell on NSW farmland in July, international treaties firmly put responsibility for any damage it caused back in the hands of the US.
“It’s a two-way street,” says Held. “If somebody tries to shoot your commercial satellite, it’s an act of war. If you de-orbit into somebody’s back lawn, then your nation’s liable. So if a space agency has the responsibility, they should also have some authority”.
Orbital parking inspectors
Space police won’t solve every issue.
But national space agencies are well positioned to tackle global questions – such as who gives way?
“If a big satellite and little satellite are on a collision course, who has the right of way? Nobody knows,” says Held. “What happens now is one owner calls the other – and the replies aren’t always civil. This is happening. We are seeing collisions in low Earth orbit because there is no jurisdiction. One party has to agree to move.”
At the moment, there’s little incentive to do so.
Satellite locations have large error margins. Better tracking systems are needed to avoid false alarms.
Meanwhile, dodging burns fuel – and reduces the lifespan of a satellite. Then there’s the risk of evasive action leading to even more problems.
“Where we’re failing is there is no global day-to-day live traffic service that considers all nations from a civil space traffic side,” says Held.
The days of tracking lists of satellite manoeuvres on a “mission management” whiteboard are over. But only just.
With the hungry hordes of business and academic space operatives come new ways of thinking.
Such as tracking the mountain of tasks with web-based Kanban boards.
That in itself was yet another steep learning curve.
“We came to a point where we considered abandoning what we’re doing and going back to the old method. But we pushed on,” says Held. “We decided to get used to it. It turned out to be a game changer – orders of magnitude better than before.”
And that’s sparked a new race to market.
“Everybody now wants to make their own version of a mission management board,” he says.
Each SACT event brings new players. And that means new capabilities.
Radars. Telescopes. Machine learning and AI analytical systems…“A lot of these suppliers, these sensor operators, they compete with each other in the market,” Held says. “This is actually one of the few chances they have where they can actively collaborate. They’re working together now quite nicely”.
Five years of SACT civil space interactions have found ways for military, civilian and academic organisations to cooperate. But work remains to be done on setting common international data standards.
“At the moment, people are sharing screenshots as evidence of what they’ve found,” Held says. “And suppliers are racing to get their evidence up as quickly as possible because that’s free marketing for them. But what we need to work on most is automation.”
Only then can enough information be collected, correlated and confirmed quickly enough to make real-world decisions.
“Remember, the world’s only been playing together like this for the last few years,” he says. “Integration efforts have only picked up in the last year and a half. So what we’re seeing is really just the beginning.”
Space junk is a serious problem. And it can remain so for centuries.
“I think everybody knows that. That’s why the Russians haven’t shot down any Ukrainian or Starlink satellites yet,” says Held. “I don’t think they will.”
The problem now is convincing global corporations of the risk.
“Industry builds their satellites to survive flight. They don’t build their satellites to survive space traffic,” Held says. “But that’s definitely going to have to change.”
Cars have long had brake lights and indicators. Modern models have collision avoidance systems, non-skid brakes, airbags…
Satellites have nothing , aside from basic beacons.
And we’re a long way from the likes of centralised and standardised flight plans, formal NOTAM (Notice to Air Missions) warnings or “Mayday” emergency procedures.
This would need an international effort similar to that behind the creation of the laws of the sea and aviation.
Until then, space safety remains in the hands of responsible operators.
And what they need is information.
If SACT has taught the world anything, Held says, it’s the need to pool as much tracking and analysis data together as possible. Only then can meaningful assessments be made.
“The problem is we’re not sharing that data. And if we don’t share that data, we don’t get the big picture. We don’t get safety.”
Sensor providers and algorithm generators want to protect their intellectual property. Data is their product. It’s how they make money. And sharing it means they don’t get repeat buyers.
“Right now, we’re not seeing suppliers playing ball,” Held says.
Instead, they’re competing fiercely over a small number of lucrative – and exclusive – contracts.
Eventually, Held speculates, data producers may end up providing data for free to the consumer. Their monetisation will come out of the systems needed to make sense of it all. But national space agencies will also have to impose a broader range of conditions on their operating licenses.
Until then, it’s survival of the fittest.
“This sort of thing is the sign of a very early market,” he concludes. “It needs to change. And that evolution is what we’re looking at.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.