Space has its own environmental problems. NorthStar Earth & Space is attempting to solve this with the latest technologies
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“In space, we always talk about firsts,” space technologist Stewart Bain muses. “Skylark would be the first dedicated satellite constellation looking at managing the situation in space such as congestion, threats of collisions, and addressing space traffic management.”
Stewart is the CEO of Canada-based space company NorthStar Earth & Space that made headlines for its efforts to address the threat of space debris, which has increased over the recent years. NorthStar plans to provide safe and sustainable solutions through its Skylark satellite constellation designed specifically for Space Situational Awareness (SSA).
Expanding space environment
Sputnik 1 was the first human-made object to orbit the Earth. Its launch created new opportunities in space. However, 63 years later, it has also added 29,000 objects as debris (larger than 10 centimetres in diameter) in addition to the 2,500-plus active satellites in space.
As space organisations around the globe explore opportunities in commercial space industry, artificial space objects are only expected to grow and this is where SSA comes in. SSA tracks natural and artificial objects in the orbit around the Earth, and predicts where the objects are going to be at any given time.
The space-tech company is collaborating with Thales Alenia Space, to build satellites for the Skylark constellation, while LeoStella, will oversee the final assembly, and Telespazio, will help in the implementation of the ground stations in Europe and Canada.
The constellation of 12 satellites would be equipped with optical sensors to monitor space objects including active and inactive satellites and debris that could pose a threat. “We put up street signs 70 years ago to manage traffic. On similar lines, we need to start thinking about how we are going to manage our interaction with what is in space in a safe and sustainable way,” Bain explains over video call from Canada.
The Canadian company has announced signing the contract for the first three satellites to build the constellation. It plans to launch them by mid-2022 and the rest by 2024.
Two satellites in Skylark constellation having multiple points of view of a satellite in orbit from two sensors at the same time in this illustration | Photo Credit: NorthStar Earth & Space Inc.
Each satellite weighs about 200 kilograms and is equipped with a 60-centimetre long sensor. The set of three satellites form a spiral, so the constellation will have four spirals with different orbits, all of which will be circular and polar at about 575 kilometres from the Earth’s surface in the low Earth orbit (LEO).
Other companies such as SpaceX and House Space Force Caucus have been vocal about the problem of debris.Since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961, numerous space missions have contributed to the build-up of debris.
Three satellites in Skylark constellation tracking multiple satellites in different orbits around the Earth in this illustration. | Photo Credit: NorthStar Earth & Space Inc.
Most ‘space junk’ can reach a speed of nearly 29,000 kilometres per hour. Because of the amount of debris in LEO and the speed at which they are moving, current and future space-based services, explorations, and operations pose a safety risk to people and property in space and on Earth, according to NASA.
A space-based satellite system has certain advantages over ground-based systems, including having multiple points of view for an object; not reliant on weather changes and atmospheric interferences; and the ability to make frequent revisits. Stewart adds, “It picks up changes quickly, if two objects collide and create debris. You want to know what is happening and don’t want to wait long for a new map of all this new debris. So, in space and from space, those things are more achievable.”
A concept image of satellites operated by various organisations at different altitudes from the Earth’s surface | Photo Credit: NorthStar Earth & Space Inc.
The system works on NorthStar’s algorithms to provide space traffic data and collision avoidance navigation services, and the satellites are needed to get the data from the right perspective.
To the future
“We’ve been thinking about this at NorthStar for eight years. Now, I think more people talk about it. But being able to see the evolution is important to be ready to face problems in future,” says Stewart. “It is like having a vaccine before the pandemic, so you have a good way to address the issue.”
NorthStar CEO Stewart Bain
NorthStar would offer subscription-based services, which will be available to organisations to address their specific needs. The announcement is a step towards becoming a revenue-generating enterprise. The company’s team of 40 people comprises individuals experienced in areas such as flight dynamics, interplanetary navigation, and mathematical modelling.
Stewart says the combination of private and public investments has helped the company get this far. NorthStar has received investments from the Canadian government, the Québec government, Telesystem Space, and the Space Alliance. The CEO adds, “The aim of the satellite constellation is to combat the imminent threat of space collisions but it also has economic value, not just to us, but to the people who are working in the new space economy.”