How can AI contribute to space debris management?

Sputnik, in 1957, paved the way for space conquest. Since then, many satellites have been launched for scientific research like ISS or for commercial purposes like Quantum. Some have exploded, others have collided: the object, from the last step of the launcher to the common bolt, is currently in orbit. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) space debris office at the ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany, estimates that collisions with active satellites measuring at least 1 centimeter in size could cause great damage to the latter but also their destruction. ESA relies exclusively on AI to prevent these risks.

Whether the end of the mission is the result of a collision, explosion, or simply abandonment, the number of debris causing disruption in the Earth’s lower orbit is increasing and represents a significant risk for active satellites.

ISS, the International Space Station, travels at an altitude of 400 km and a speed of 28,800 km / h and orbits the Earth in 92 minutes. The risk of collisions with debris in this low orbit is significant, and since its launch in 1998 it has also had to run about thirty avoidance strategies, which have become more frequent in recent years.

In particular, it had to change course in November 2021 to avoid collisions with the debris generated by the test firing of Russian anti-satellite missiles, which allowed the destruction of the Cosmos-1408, launched in 1982, which was rendered useless. For the same reason, 16 June is a similar strategy.

The destruction of the Kosmos-1408 gave birth to about 1,500 pieces of debris. On May 16, the Sentinel-1A satellite, developed by ESA as part of the European Copernicus program, had to deviate from its course to avoid one of them.

In November 2021, NASA stated:

“All countries have a responsibility to prevent the deliberate creation of space debris from ASAT and to build a safe and sustainable space environment. A

For ESA, progress has been made in recent years towards a sustainable space environment. Thus, a good portion of the launches of satellites into low Earth orbit are eliminated in a responsible way, just as there are more satellites at the end of the mission, the problem is getting rid of all the others, especially the ones that already exist. There

ESOC Wreck Office

ESA’s European Space Operations Center (ESOC) is located in Darmstadt, Germany. This includes the Debris Office, which is responsible for providing operational services on ongoing or planned missions between the ESA and third parties.

These services include:

  • Avoid collisions in orbit (forecasting, predictive refinement and avoidance strategy recommendations),
  • Re-entry forecast and risk assessment (re-entry time and location forecast, spacecraft erosion and disappearance forecast, and ground risk assessment),
  • Maintenance of spatial situational awareness information of all searchable objects in the discus database (Database and Information System Characterizing Objects in Space).

In its April 2022 report, it recalls that the most effective way to prevent an increase in the number of debris is to strictly adhere to the IADC (Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee Space Debris) space debris mitigation guidelines: safely avoid collisions in orbit. Dispose of spacecraft at the end of their mission, and above all prevent the risk of explosions.

Holger Krag, head of the ruins bureau, said:

“Explosions in orbit are the biggest current contributors to the space debris problem; they are caused by residual energy – fuel and batteries in board satellites or launchers. Eventually the tendency to take steps to deorbit the spacecraft is improving, but slowly.

Secure space with AI

ESA invites the global AI community to participate in the development of a system that is able to autonomously avoid space debris or at least reduce the pressure on experts. Since 2021, AI algorithms have warned teams when one of their satellites may collide with another object in orbit.

Holger Craig then said:

“Every conflict avoidance strategy is a nuisance. Not just because of the fuel consumption, but also because of the preparation associated with it. We have to reserve passes for ground stations, which cost money, sometimes we have to stop acquiring scientific data. We must have a team of experts who are available 24 hours a day. A

He added:

“So far, we’ve automated everything that requires an expert brain to be alert 24/7 and track collision warnings. The final decision on whether or not to perform the Evacive Maneuver is automatically the most complex part and we hope to find a solution to this problem within the next few years. A

However, space debris catalogs are not complete enough to train AI algorithms: small fragments of debris are not listed there, just like military satellites …

Clean Earth Orbit: ClearSpace-1

Eliminating debris may be a more effective solution than trying to avoid it. In 2013, the Clean Space Office was created, with the goal of ” Protect the future of space activities by protecting the environment on Earth and in space. ” The team’s goal is to clear Earth’s orbit of its debris, and in 2020, ESA signed a 86 86 million deal with Swiss start-up ClearSpace, based on creation and innovation in 2018. Park from EPFL, to buy a unique service: the first removal of space debris in orbit.

The goal of ClearSpace-1 is to restore the upper stage of an ESA Vega rocket launched in 2013. It will enter orbit 500 kilometers above the earth, a little below the wreckage, to test its proper effectiveness. It will then approach it, grab it with four robotic arms, and it will detach with it as soon as it returns to Earth’s atmosphere. The mission is scheduled for 2025-2026.

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