4 mins read 22 Jul 2020

When satellites check in on other satellites

Sydney-based HEO Robotics has developed a platform that allows satellites in orbit to check in on the health and well-being of other satellites.

Credit: HEO Robotics

With more satellites going into orbit than ever before, the need for in-situ evaluation of space-based assets is becoming an important consideration for agencies, manufacturers, researchers, businesses and the space industry – all of which are becoming more reliant on space-based services and applications.

Not only are risks (such as collisions) increasing in Earth’s lower orbits (which is becoming crowded, filled with new constellations made up of thousands of member satellites and an onslaught of bread loaf sized CubeSats), developers are also trying to maximise the effective lifespan of satellites to exploit the return on investment of the product, service or revenue they are driving from them.

High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics, a Sydney-based company, is now stepping into to try and reduce these risks by providing a top-down literal look at satellites – assessing their condition and ensuring all operations remain nominal on the asset.

In May this year, the HEO Robotics took its first verification image from an Earth Observation (EO) satellite – Kompsat 3 (owned by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute and operated by the SI Imaging Service) – to photograph the International Space Station (ISS) as it crossed the Indian Ocean in a lower orbit.

As a proof of concept, the Kompsat 3 image of ISS was resolved at 1 metre resolution – which, according to HEO Robotics, is lower than what their customers will receive – yet it highlighted a great degree of detail which included the docked Progress 75 spacecraft, living quarters and the science module, solar panels and the space left in preparation for the Crew Dragon spacecraft arrival.

What appears as a blurry, non-natural streak is the raw data image capture of the ISS, which is then further enhanced by specialist software that HEO Robotics uses – factoring in the relative velocity of both moving satellites (roughly 11 km/s in this scenario) to simulate the final data.

The ISS in raw format, moving at high velocity and captured by a higher orbiting satellite (Kompsat 3). Credit: HEO Robotics, KARI, SI Imaging

Resolving the raw data to produce an image of the observed object. Credit: HEO Robotics

HEO Robotics is continually looking at improving image quality as part of their current in-situ satellites watching satellites service offerings, but the overall plan (deemed ‘the master plan’ by the organisation) is to step out further to inspect Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites - which are based much further out at approximately 36,000 km from Earth, and eventually – use the technological advances, learnings and investments to commence fly-by in-situ observations of asteroids for potential resource mining.

The modelling upon which the company has developed does not require them to currently use any of their own developed and launched satellites – instead, it factors in existing satellites which are not being utilised to their full potential.

As satellites orbit the Earth (look down as part of EO), most of their active up-time they’re observing land-based activities. However, Earth has a lot of oceanic regions and when satellites are orbiting over these areas – they’re not being utilised to their full potential.

Here’s where HEO Robotics model fits in – during this down time, satellite services could be sold to customers who want to check in on their own assets from a higher orbiting Earth observing platform. To showcase the above proof of concept example, it would be akin to NASA wanting to check in on the ISS (as the customer) and Kompsat 3 providing the observation – HEO Robotics simply fit in the middle, helping facilitate the transaction.

There’s even a plan to repurpose old (and just about to be retired) GEO satellites which have a small reserve of fuel on board, originally planned to take them out to the graveyard of satellites (a ring of retired, no longer operating satellites beyond GEO). HEO Robotics is hoping to use the final reserve of fuel to boost these satellites onto trajectories that take them into a fly-by orbit of near-Earth crossing satellites. This would gather valuable data about the properties of asteroids, allowing a ‘map’ of these resources to be generated for future mining prospects.

The technology and model could also be used to map the increasing risks of space debris – assisting with the growing need for space situational awareness and management, along with utilisation for military purposes (e.g. satellites spying on other satellites) in a world where the territory of space is becoming increasingly contested – as competing nations start looking beyond the atmosphere for the next boom.

In June 2020, HEO Robotics was also awarded $270,000 funding from the Australian Government as part of the Defence Innovation Program.