Effective Communications: Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices

Two things: one housekeeping announcement and one addition related to last week’s analysis.

I’ve written a lot of analyses and realized the search function on my WordPress site just won’t work. So I’ve added a “Categories” link in the site’s header (in the upper right). Click on that and an hierarchical list shows up with six major categories. Each has sub-categories which should help with narrowing down searches. Feedback on that change (or any of my writing, for that matter) is welcome.

My last analysis referenced the European Space Agency’s (ESA) habit of allocating European investments to its favorite space companies. One of those companies, ArianeGroup, in a shocking display of greed (actually, not shocking), seems to take exception to the possibility that ESA might soon invest in startups (micro launchers) that could use the money instead of Ariane. This “European Spaceflight Update” post does an excellent job bringing up ArianeGroup’s response and pushing back on the company’s misinformation.

On to this week’s analysis!

When a business decides to enter the realm of space operations–meaning the deployment and operation of spacecraft–it must consider quite a few topics and challenges along the way. Of course, there’s the business itself–what product or service will result from a satellite in Earth’s orbit? Is there a market? The business must consider radio frequency usage and allocation and the ground stations necessary to control the satellites and receive data. It has to go through the trades between the realities of spacecraft building and operations, and the service it wants to offer to customers. 

Answering A Growing Challenge

However, one aspect of space operations pertains to the increasing number of spacecraft deployed into the Earth’s orbit. The growth of spacecraft orbiting the Earth, particularly in low Earth orbit (LEO) altitudes, make it necessary for even the most humble single-spacecraft operator to incorporate spacecraft collision avoidance procedures into its operational behavior and practices. To be clear, it was always a necessary consideration, even when very few spacecraft orbited the Earth not that long ago. The change–the planned tens of thousands of spacecraft in the next few years–only now makes it an obvious necessity now.

That necessity is the inspiration for “Satellite Orbital Safety Best Practices,” a guide that three companies–Iridium, OneWeb, and SpaceX–contributed to (and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) “facilitated”). It’s a short guide–14 pages–that probably incorporates a few of those companies’ lessons learned as they manage their large constellations. 

The guide is broken down into four sections: 

  • Design time
    • Orbit selection (and awareness of who else is in that orbit)
    • Spacecraft design
    • Software design
  • Pre-launch and early orbit
    • Create and communicate transport to orbit strategy
    • Protect crewed spacecraft using launch COLA  
    • Coordinate with agencies before and during launch
  • On orbit
    • Know where your satellite will be and its status, and provide that data regularly to a “CA screening authority.”
    • Identify high-risk conjunctions
    • Take action to avoid high-risk conjunctions
  • Satellite disposal
    • As quickly as possible, deorbit satellites reaching end of mission life.

The guide isn’t comprehensive, but it isn’t meant to be. It is thoughtful and shows evidence of introspection. It is a helpful contribution that provides hard-earned lessons to those willing to learn. The guide emphasizes a few things sorely lacking in the space industry: effective communication and thoughtful planning. The suggestions in each section seem reasonable overall. However, some interesting word choices exist for those unfamiliar with space operations jargon. It’s not a full-on technical tome, but the guide’s authors clearly believe that readers should possess some industry knowledge. 

Lessons Were Learned

Each contributing company operates large constellations. Iridium operates the smallest of the lot, with OneWeb operating much more than Iridium, and of course, SpaceX operating the most satellites in orbit ever (so far). Besides constellation sizes, each company brings a few other qualifications for authoring the guide. Their experiences should make other space operators take a few suggestions seriously. 

Of the group, Iridium (through no fault of its own) has the unfortunate distinction of one of its satellites colliding with an non-operational Russian satellite. At the time (2009), collision avoidance procedures were not unknown but implemented infrequently. From a NASA briefing of the Iridium/Cosmos collision: 

“On average only two collision avoidance maneuvers are conducted each year by the entire NASA fleet of more than 25 robotic satellites.”

For comparison, between 1 December 2020 and 31 May 2021, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites alone conducted over 2,000 collision avoidance maneuvers. Starlink’s constellation size and the exceedingly large number of maneuvers are likely why SpaceX is involved in the guide. While its satellites have not collided with other satellites (as far as we know), it has gone through some very public close calls, such as the one with a European Space Agency satellite. It’s interesting to see that, according to the ESA Twitter account, it was the first time the agency ever conducted a collision avoidance maneuver for a satellite.

A Theme of Communications

OneWeb and Starlink satellites have also come close to each other. Each of their stories demonstrates either no communication between operators (such as Russia and Iridium), a lack of a reliable way to communicate (SpaceX and ESA), or disagreement about the facts of a potential collision (SpaceX and OneWeb). Their challenges likely inspired the guide’s origins. Newcomers and current operators who fail to think about collision avoidance procedures and communications would be dirtying the water for the other operators. 

Their experiences are also why they bring up a communication angle in every section of the guide. They didn’t have effective communication and certainly didn’t have reliable processes in place for communicating when it was urgent. In one of the above examples, a company’s unreliable internal communications technology affected collision avoidance actions (even the best companies could benefit from better internal communications). But the seeming “telephone-game” nature of communications between the company and the space agency also hindered the process. 

However, effective communication requires a sender and a receiver. Both must perceive what the communication is and the commonality between the participants. Hopefully, the communication is impactful enough that it motivates both participants to action. If a person or organization communicates with counterparts about upcoming spacecraft collisions, effectively communicating means the receiver sees the message, acts on it, and works with the sender to fix the problem. 

But what if, as has happened in the past, the communication is biased or nonexistent? 

What if one communication participant believes they somehow have more of a “right” to be in an orbital track than another? Why should they be the ones to move? Or, what if one of the participants knows their ephemeris is significantly more accurate while the other is less certain? They feel no maneuvers are necessary, but the other one feels like they must because of the uncertainty. Worse, what if one of the participants refuses to acknowledge any communications and provides no clue as to what it will do? What if they deliberately move satellites closer to others but don’t acknowledge the action? 

The guide is a guide and not a legal framework, so the answers to those questions are not within it. But those scenarios show the importance of effective communication and why the guide focuses on that.

Other critiques of the guide: oddly, Planet or Spire didn’t contribute. Each company operates more satellites than Iridium. Based on public comments from Planet, it has also dealt with collision avoidance maneuvering–primarily between Planet’s satellites. So both cubesat operators might have contributed to lessons learned. Also notable are the authors’ U.S.-/Anglo-centric perspectives. While orbital safety practices should be pretty universal, other constellation operators, such as BeiDou, or NavIC, might also have some significant lessons to impart. It may be that the “communications clique” authoring the guide was inadvertent, or others were invited to help with it and declined.

As noted before, the guide is helpful, especially to those considering entry into the realm of space operations. It highlights that for all a company’s business plan might have been created in a vacuum, that going solo in the vacuum of space is going to cause more headaches than profit. It’s an excellent contribution to a conversation in which the space industry needs to engage. Maybe its status as a guide, not a legal instrument, will induce others to adopt some of the suggested best practices.

Or maybe they won’t. But hopefully that attitude changes.

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