Space startup offers a hybrid approach to debris tracking

By: |
July 17, 2021 1:56 PM

This startup incubated by the Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is India’s first to be working in this space, and globally they are pioneers of the hybrid approach to tracking space debris tracking.

space junk, Space startup, problem of space junk and eliminate the risk of collisions in space., funding of Kalari capitals, Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc)The global space industry was valued at over $400 Billion in 2018 with 80% of that represented by the commercial space sector. (Image: ESA)

Led by three 22-year-old founders – Anirudh N Sharma, Rahul Rawat, Tanveer Ahmed – Digantara, Space-tech startup is set to take on the problem of space junk and eliminate the risk of collisions in space. As part of their seed round of funding from Kalaari Capital, Space-tech startup has raised USD 2.5 million, which is expected to enable them to launch their first satellite (technology demonstration mission) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), much sooner than expected.

This startup incubated by the Society for Innovation and Development (SID) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is India’s first to be working in this space, and globally they are pioneers of the hybrid approach to tracking space debris tracking.

Anirudh Sharma, CEO, Digantara, shares more details with Huma Siddiqui on the projects the company is working on.

Following are excerpts:

How big is the problem of space junk and what are the traditional methods of detecting space debris?

The global space industry was valued at over $400 Billion in 2018 with 80% of that represented by the commercial space sector. Emerging markets such as IoT & 5G are dependent on satellites for reliability. The next phase in the space sector will be off-Earth economic activities and space powers are gearing up for continuous presence of mankind in space. SSA (Space Situational Awareness) is critical to enable these missions. Currently there are more than 3000 active satellites in orbit and over 15,000 satellites are approved by authorities. The space faring nations and its companies are rightly concerned about the potential catastrophic loss of one’s investment due to a collision in orbit. Even one such loss would deter investment in all space operations. The global community is worried about reaching the practical limit on orbit and spectrum utilisation. Collision risk and the dynamic nature of new-space missions make allocation operations worse for telecom authorities. The 10 cm spatial resolution of the ground-based space surveillance systems leaves 96 % of about 1 million lethal space objects untracked and even for the tracked 4 %, complex metrics (object profile & error statistics) are unavailable making the tracking data operationally irrelevant. Thus-and-so the derived Space Situational Awareness is woefully inadequate leaving $478 Billion space resources risk and costing satellite operators enormously by rapidly depleting staffing resources and fuel budgets.

A robust Space Traffic Management (STM) would pave the way to a surface-to-space traffic management required for smooth operation between upcoming launch providers and the aviation sector. Moreover, data driven decision policy making is a need of the hour and more real time and accurate information is needed to drive decision policy making.

Accurate consciousness of the operational environment is vital for Rendezvous Proximity Operations/Satellite Servicing Operations (RPO/SSO). Thereby rendering ‘comprehensive, operationally relevant, decision-quality Space Situational Awareness’ imperative for missions related to orbit modification / maintenance, refueling, commodities replenishment, upgrade / repair / assembly / manufacturing, Debris mitigation / removal, re / de-orbiting.

What technology do you have to combat this problem? How does its innovation differ from current solutions?

The Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of the United States, the Space Surveillance System (SSS) of Russia, European Space Agency and a few companies form the current Space Situational Awareness (SSA) infrastructure. They employ a variety of advanced and sophisticated ground-based radars and electro-optical sensors but it is estimated that over 129 Million pieces of debris still orbit the earth in LEO, out of which only 34,000 are currently being tracked. Of these, there are over 900,000 untracked objects sized between 1 cm and 10 cm. As the space economy booms, systematic weaknesses about the prevailing space activities are being exposed. With emerging new-space actors, applications, the major concern to policy makers and investors is the survivability of future space operations. The transmission losses due to the atmosphere & static nature of the ground based system have primarily limited the current status quo of SSA.

“Addressing the space traffic management and sustainability problem from Space” is what Digantara does in a nutshell. We are developing an active space-based surveillance platform to track space objects through its constellation of high resolution space object tracking nano-satellites; to help the stakeholders and regulators in the space industry to know the accurate situation about and around their multi-million-dollar-valued space assets protecting them from being destroyed in in-orbit collisions and providing real time mission critical insights to effectively elevate space governance.

Who will be the beneficiaries of Digantara’s data and how will it help the space industry as a whole?

The data collected by the company’s dedicated Space Surveillance constellation forms the highest resolution global data source on Space Situational Awareness. This will be used to create a visualization of the space situational awareness thus, providing an end to end mission operation support and multiple downstream services. Digantara will provide its fine grained SSA services on a subscription based model to mitigate the losses and threats posed by smaller debris. With the data collected by its constellation of nano-satellites, tracking the small hostile debris; the new space industry could benefit in terms of safe passage and risk assessment. Increasing the sustainability of operations in space will also increase the commercial probability of space activity while reducing the threats of damage due to space debris. The data is also a requisite for future space missions like debris mitigation, space manufacturing and human spaceflight.

What does the future hold in store for space-tech in the SSA (Space Situational Awareness) and STM (Space Traffic Management) space?

The space sector is in the midst of a massive transformation. Space missions are estimated to increase by tenfold in the next 10 years. With this rate of increase, ensuring the sustainability of operations in space will be a major challenge. A huge problem of regulating the space and space traffic management lies in front of us. This problem gets even worse in the highest used orbital belt of LEO. Therefore, they have very low or negligible chances of sustaining a collision with even a smallest piece of junk. With increasing amount of junk, especially in the most used orbits of LEO (~ 600-900 Km altitude), it becomes extremely essential to ensure the sustainability of satellites, as any collision will only add-on to the the amount of junk further making these orbits not only risky and un-usable but also, harder to cross. “Transparency and coordination is the key to a sustainable space environment”

What is the expertise of the Team behind Digantara?

Digantara harbors experts in dedicated space verticals with sound experience in the space industry. The team members backed by Dr Satyanarayana Malladi, ex-ISRO who serves as Chief Scientific Officer at Digantara, have rich experience in developing satellite systems and payloads with teams of people from diverse technical, administrative and social backgrounds. They have worked previously on technologies like multi-wavelength LiDAR, space borne LiDAR, space biology payload with precision thermal control, structure & mechanisms, Ring Laser Gyroscope, Laser designator, L-band Radar and atmospheric LiDARs.

The multifarious team of space architects are developing a patent-backed comprehensive SSA solution suite for modelling centimetre-sized Resident Space Objects (RSO) and space weather in LEO. Their credibility has also fetched them over 100,000 USD in grants and a plethora of awards & recognitions in various national and international platforms including partnerships, contracts and R&D projects with leading established space companies.

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