Although the report of a potential collision between a SpaceX capsule and space debris last week was a false alarm, the co-founders of a Colorado aerospace company say the scare illustrates the need for some kind of space traffic control.
The four astronauts on the SpaceX capsule were headed to the International Space Station on Friday when they were told to put on their space suits, get back in their seats and get ready in case a piece of space junk reportedly headed their way collided with their craft. Nothing happened. The U.S. Space Command told The Associated Press on Monday there was no object and the error is under review.
Siamak Hesar and Araz Feyzi, co-founders of Boulder-based Kayhan Space, said despite the false alarm this time, the risk of a potential collision is real because only a fraction of the estimated 1 million-plus pieces of space debris can be tracked.
“Events like this one underscore the need for autonomous collision assessment and avoidance systems that remove human errors from the critical path of response,” the two said in an email.
Hesar and Feyzi, who have known each other since high school in their native Iran, began talking a couple of years ago about an idea Hesar had for a company. Hesar, who worked on missions by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was a research assistant at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned his doctorate, wanted to develop a kind of air traffic control system for space.
The growth in commercial satellites that provide many different services is exploding, Hesar, Kayhan’s CEO, said in an interview. “But there are side effects that are not great, and space congestion is one of those side effects.”
Since the 1960s, about 8,000 satellites have been launched and close to 2,000 are still operating, Feyzi said, the company’s chief technology officer. The number of satellites in lower orbit, from roughly 99 miles to about 1,250 miles above the Earth’s surface, is expected to skyrocket.
“Just within a year or so, a company such as SpaceX went from not having any assets (in space) to becoming the largest satellite operator in the world. And expectations are that in the next 10 years or so we’ll have tens of thousands of active satellites,” Feyzi said.
The orbiting debris range in size, but even the smallest piece of junk can do serious damage to a spacecraft because of the speed at which it hurtles through space. Kayhan, which is Farsi for “universe” and is the name of Hesar’s first son, has developed technology that assesses the potential for collisions and maps ways for owners of satellites to avoid them.
Satellites collect and transmit data used in agriculture, shipping, telecommunications and weather forecasting. Hesar said space infrastructure, like highways and electric grids, has to be protected and maintained.
Kayhan received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Air Force and was part of the Techstars Allied Space Accelerator. The company has 11 employees and is growing.
Kayhan’s system monitors the numerous notices issued by the 18th Space Control Squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The squadron supports a space surveillance network that tracks human made objects in space and plots their paths.
Companies with satellites in orbit get notifications from the 18th Space Control Squadron about potentially close approaches, Feyzi said. A company might get hundreds of notifications a week.
Kayhan receives the notifications and with its technology analyzes them for customers and recommends maneuvers that might be needed to avoid a crash in space. People generally would have at least a couple of days to act.
“You have to automate it, and that’s where we come in,” Hesar said.
Kayhan is providing support for about a hundred satellites. The company is working with government agencies on its technology and has three contracts with the Air Force.
Hesar said although space is unlimited, the area closer to Earth, where satellites vital to everyday commerce and important data are flying, is “a very narrow band of space.”
“For us in general at Kayhan, we look at space and space congestion kind of as a natural resource issue,” Hesar said. “Just like any other natural resource, we need to use it responsibly.”
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