DARPA unified space-sensor networks help keep orbiting junk from slamming into something important

orbitoutlook o2

DARPA’s OrbitOutlook program aims to provide a way to quickly acquire and process large amounts of high-quality data from diverse nontraditional sources—including civil, commercial, academic, and international partners—to enable the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and the growing commercial space community to better monitor the quickly evolving space environment and evaluate when satellites are at risk from manmade space debris.

Credit: DARPA

DARPA’s OrbitOutlook program brings seven previously separate space sensor networks together to form the largest network of space situational awareness networks ever assembled

DARPA recently said that it had finished integrating seven space-watching networks that will feed tons of new Earth-orbiting junk data into what the agency calls “the largest and most diverse network of space situational awareness networks ever assembled.”

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DARPA’s OrbitOutlook (O2) program brings seven previously separate new space sensor networks together that could ultimately feed into the United States Space Surveillance Network (SSN), a worldwide network of 29 military radar and optical telescopes operated by the Air Force as well as NASA, the FAA and other entities that could use the information.

“By including new telescopes and radar facilities based in diverse locales, and by revolutionizing how we process different data types, we anticipate vast improvements in our tracking of potentially hazardous objects and our ability to efficiently avoid collisions in space,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Raley, DARPA program manager in a statement. “If we’re successful, OrbitOutlook could revolutionize how the U.S. military and the global space-debris-monitoring community collect and use space situational awareness data, through a framework based on partnerships and fee-for-service arrangements that would enable all parties to share and purchase data from hundreds of sensors. Not only could we double or triple the amount of useful data, but we could also generate indications and warnings in hours instead of weeks and provide orders-of-magnitude improvements in accuracy and affordability.

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DARPA scientists will soon start testing scalable, automated algorithms on this integrated feed, in an effort to identify and extract relevant data that space situational awareness experts could use to make decisions in near real time, DARPA stated. The agency said it expects civil, academic and commercial groups to tie into O2 in an effort to bring more sensors online to track space debris from diverse geographic locations.

The seven networks that DARPA has developed to integrate space situational awareness data from include:

  • StellarView, which uses optical telescopes and passive radio frequency (RF) telescopes at six academic institutions
  • SpaceView, which uses privately owned optical telescope
  • EchoView, in which DARPA is developing the technology to leverage commercial and civil radars and passive RF telescopes
  • The Low Inclined LEO Object (LILO) detection effort, which is deploying a suite of optical telescopes to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean to improve detection of space objects in equatorial orbits
  • ExoAnalytic Solutions, a commercial network of optical and passive RF telescope
  • Raven, a U.S. government network of small optical telescope systems composed of inexpensive commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components under development at the
  • Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)Rincon, a commercial network using passive RF telescopes

“More than 500,000 pieces of manmade space debris—including spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, and fragments as small as flecks of paint—currently hurtle around the Earth at roughly 17,000 miles per hour. At those speeds, impacts involving even the smallest of those items can damage satellites and spawn chain reactions of collisions, increasing the amount of orbital flotsam and creating “minefields” in space that can remain unpassable for centuries. Tracking debris is thus essential—not just to protect existing commercial and government satellites but also to ensure that paths to critical locations in low Earth orbit (LEO), geosynchronous orbit, and orbits in between stay clear and safe for future space assets,” DARPA stated.

NASA weighs in

In March, NASA updated its top 10 space junk missions. NASA' s Orbital Debris Program Office said that by far the source of the greatest amount of   orbital   debris   remains   the   Fengyun-1C   spacecraft, which was the target of   a People’s Republic of China anti-satellite test in January 2007.

“This   satellite alone   now   accounts   for 3,428 cataloged fragments or almost 20% of   the entire population of   cataloged manmade objects in orbit about the planet.   Additional debris from this test and other events are currently being tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and are officially cataloged on a routine basis,” NASA stated. In 2010 there were 2,841 pieces of junk from this spacecraft.

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Orbital debris can include all manner of space system parts from derelict spacecraft and upper stages of launch vehicles to debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations and even tiny flecks of paint from small particle hits on existing spacecraft, NASA said.

The space agency says that 10 missions out of the 5,160 space missions that have launched since 1957 account for approximately one-third of all cataloged objects now in Earth orbit.

NASA said that the second and fourth most significant satellite   breakups   are Cosmos   2251   and Iridium 33 spacecraft, which were involved in the first ever accidental satellite collision February 2009.

“While over 68% of   the Cosmos debris cloud remains on orbit, only 58% of the Iridium cloud is on orbit, due in part to the higher area-to-mass ratio bias of the latter cloud. Because of their relatively high altitude, these clouds will continue to present a hazard for decades to come, NASA said.

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