6 mins read 11 May 2021

HEO Robotics to Launch Camera onboard Space Machines Module

HEO Robotics have announced they will be a customer onboard Space Machines Company’s orbital transport vehicle, with their HEO Robotics’ “Potoroo” camera, which is used for on-orbit inspection of satellites and space debris. 

Space Machines Company’s Optimus-1 Space Transporter will be launched in 2022 on board the Eris Launch vehicle from Gilmour Space Technologies. Credit - Space Machines Company

HEO Robotics, who use space-based cameras to inspect assets in space, have announced they will be a customer onboard the Space Machines Company’s (SMC) Optimus-1 Space Transporter. SMC’s Optimus-1 Space Transporter will be launched onboard a Gilmour Space Technologies, Eris Launch Vehicle, in 2022. 

HEO Robotics will be launching the first of their in-house designed cameras to add to their current network. The camera, named “Potoroo” after the small furry Australian marsupial to represent its Australian origins, is specifically designed to gather enhanced Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data in LEO and is the first camera to be designed by HEO Robotics specifically for this task. HEO Robotics currently employs 15 cameras owned by other businesses, to conduct the task of on-orbit inspection, making use of them when they are not collecting data for their owners. 

According to HEO Robotics CEO, Dr William Crowe this is the first of many, with plans to have complete coverage of Low Earth Orbit within the next couple of years. 

“Our strategy is to have cameras like this on board as many different spacecraft from as many different providers as possible.” he said, and is part of a wider strategy “to put as many cameras on orbit as possible”.

“This collaboration with Space Machines, goes beyond what we are doing today,” said Dr Crowe. He indicated that they planned to, with the help of QR codes, be able to identify every satellite and attribute ownership. 

“Potoroo is a crucial step towards building out our orbital camera network that advances both space situational awareness and the ability to react quickly to space debris creation events. Tens of thousands of satellites are planned for launch over the next several years, so it’s essential that Australia has its own sovereign satellite capabilities like these, to fully inform our decision-makers,” Crowe added. 

HEO Robotics was part of the 2017 University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) founders program and is aiming to build a space situational awareness capability that will deliver a quick reaction capability for management of space debris and on-orbit inspections. 

“At the moment if something happens to your satellite there is no way to understand what is going on, especially if the satellite stops talking to you,” said Dr Crowe, adding “Every time a satellite stops working or you can’t recover it, it becomes space debris.”

Moving around in Space

The Space Machines Company orbital transport vehicle, Optimus-1. Credit - Space Machines Company.

Travelling around in space is not as easy as it may appear, you can’t just fly up to where you want to go without significant planning and even then your chosen launch provider may deploy your satellite into a sub-optimal orbit that you need to move out of. 

Changing orbital parameters such as inclination, the angle at which the satellite rotates around the Earth, or the height of the orbit, takes either a lot of fuel or a large amount of time. Both of which can add significant cost to your mission. 

With a significant increase in the demand for space assets according to SMC CEO and Co-Founder Rajat Kulshrestha “There is going to be an increasing demand for in space mobility, so how do you optimise and move around in space into higher orbits, which is still quite inefficient?” 

“We will support mission profiles like deployment of large constellations, LEO to GEO transfers, LEO to Cis-Lunar transfers, smaller science missions from LEO and things like debris management and life extension,” he said. 

SMC are developing an orbital transport vehicle that will have the flexibility of using chemical, electrical or a combination of both types of propulsion and will be modular in nature. They are also hoping to change the way in which satellite owners interact with launch providers. 

“If you are flying from Sydney to Melbourne you don’t want to negotiate with Boeing for your airline ticket, and that's a bit like what we have at the moment. If you have a satellite you have to talk to SpaceX [or similar]. You want to [be able to] carry 200kg to space, to a 30° orbit and that's all you need to know. We find the appropriate launcher and negotiate upstream” said Kulshrestha.

The concept of SMC started with a desire to create a system of on-orbit satellite manufacturing but according to Kulshrestha, you need a sophisticated method of moving around. That is how the Optimus-1 Space Transporter came into being. The first step on the road to being able to log onto a portal and getting a CubeSat in the configuration of your choice built already in orbit.

Studying Asteroids

An artist's impression of a satellite studying an asteroid. Credit - NASA

“Over the next couple of years we are looking to complete coverage of Low Earth Orbit”, said Dr Crowe, but LEO is just the beginning, he explained, “We will be having cameras in GEO (Geostationary Orbit) and around the Moon as time goes on.”

Like SMC the idea for SSA came from another concept to utilise specialist technology. Dr Crowe who has a PhD in Space Flight Dynamics, came into SSA whilst researching asteroids and sees the same technology as having an application in this field as well. 

“We are really passionate about solving this problem around understanding what is happening in space and helping operators [employ] their satellites better, but as time goes on we will move more and more to opening the next frontier of space by analysing asteroids as they pass close to Earth and getting really good data on them as well,” he said. 

According to Dr Crowe’s Phd thesis, exploring near-Earth asteroids could have significant benefits, including understanding them to form impact mitigation strategies and help us understand how the universe was formed.