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Automating collision avoidance

on 30 May 2022

ESA is preparing to use machine learning to protect satellites from the very real and growing danger of space debris.

The Agency is developing a collision avoidance system that will automatically assess the risk and likelihood of in-space collisions, improve the decision making process on whether or not a manoeuvre is needed, and may even send the orders to at-risk satellites to get out of the way.

Such automated decisions could even take place on board satellites, which would directly inform other operators on the ground and satellites in orbit of their intentions. This will be essential to ensuring that automated decisions do not interfere with the manoeuvre plans of others.

As these intelligent systems gather more data and experience, they will get better and better at predicting how risky situations evolve, meaning errors in decision making would fall as well as the cost of operations.

After roughly 5450 launches since the beginning of the space age in 1957, the number of debris objects estimated to be in orbit, as of January 2019, was:

34,000 objects larger than 10cm in size

900 000 objects between 1cm to 10cm

128 million objects from 1mm to 10cm

Because of this debris environment, it is now routine for operators in highly-trafficked orbits to spend time protecting their spacecraft from potentially catastrophic collisions with space junk, by performing ‘collision avoidance manoeuvres’ – basically sending the commands to their spacecraft to get out of the way.

Such manoeuvres depend on validated, accurate and timely space surveillance data, provided for example by the US Space Surveillance Network, serving as the basis of ‘conjunction data messages’, or CDMs, warning of possible close encounter between their spacecraft and another satellite or space object.

For a typical satellite in low-Earth orbit, hundreds of alerts are issued every week. For most, the risk of collision decreases as the week goes by and more orbital information is gathered, but for some the risk is deemed high enough that further action is required.

More details here

Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab