How Neuraspace aims to clean up orbital clutter with AI

Can tech and regulations beat the great satellite landgrab?

Interview Debris speeding along in orbit is becoming an increasing hazard for spacecraft. We can either ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself or accept there is an issue and learn to deal with it.

Chiara Manfletti, CEO of Neuraspace, belongs to the latter camp. Her company makes use of AI to track and avoid space debris, with the goal of entirely automating the process.

Chiara Manfletti (Credit: Neuraspace)

Chiara Manfletti (Credit: Neuraspace)

The company was established in 2020, before the fad of sprinkling AI fairy dust over any and all products in the hope of attracting VC funding. Instead, it uses AI and machine learning to classify possible conjunctions and notify customers of potential risks.

You might expect such a company to be an ardent supporter of regulations around debris, but Manfletti takes a more pragmatic approach: "I tend to be more of a liberal rather than someone who wants to impose stuff … there is an economic dimension to this that not very many people talk about."

US television provider DISH was recently fined by the US Federal Communications Commission after a satellite was left in the wrong orbit at the end of its operational life, but Manfletti says that a carrot must accompany the stick.

While she approves of the FCC's action, she believes the companies that take collision avoidance and traffic management seriously and have a sustainability plan in place should be rewarded for their efforts. Those rewards could take the form of an accelerated approach to licensing. She laughs: "It's like going on the high-speed lane rather than being stuck behind all the trucks.

"So I think that there should be some positive action to stimulate things rather than just forcing negative feedback on those actions."

But what to do? Surprising as it may seem, there is an argument that nothing needs to be done. It is all Somebody Else's Problem. Manfletti gives the example of a satellite operator CEO who took the line: "We don't have to worry about space debris at all because the military is going to pay for everything."

It's not a wholly illogical argument. If the military wishes to use the space above the Earth, that space must be functional. This is, however, not really an excuse to hope the problem will go away.

"There's still a lack of awareness of the urgency for us to do something," says Manfletti. "There aren't collisions taking place every day, which is good, but if we don't do anything, it's not going to get any better. It's going to get worse."

Manfletti would, therefore, much prefer an economic imperative for approaching the problem – after all, launching and operating satellites is an expensive business. "And if that doesn't work, then I'll happily support the stick."

Neuraspace's technology relies on collecting different data from different sources to build up a picture of what is happening in orbit. It will make use of optical data, radar data, and static databases. It will even take into account other factors, such as the effects of solar activity on atmospheric density. Finally, it also considers the size and shape of objects, builds virtual ellipsoids around them, and eventually comes up with a probability of collision.

Plans include extending the AI functionality to use more natural language to aid in the comprehensibility of the data generated. However, while dodging an old bit of rocket is one thing, dealing with two active spacecraft on a potential collision course is quite another.

In 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) was forced to perform a "collision avoidance maneuver" to shift its Aeolus spacecraft off a trajectory that would have brought it dangerously close to one SpaceX's Starlink satellites. Aeolus's mission ended successfully despite its close encounter with one of Elon Musk's broadband birds.

Manfletti says: "There's a strong component of coordination, and who needs to maneuver when – going back to the regulatory aspects, the so-called 'rules of the road.'

"Who moves first? Is it the satellite that is the biggest and most expensive? Is it the satellite that has the most propellant on board? These things have to be worked out, and until we do have regulatory frameworks or guidelines in place that are shared by the community, I think companies like ourselves can bring coordination between active satellite operators."

But would all the operators sign up to such an agreement? ESA's experience in 2019 with Starlink was not positive, and some countries appear as unconcerned with the creation of debris today as others were at the dawn of the space age.

"That's the thing, right?" says Manfletti. "That's definitely essential. Everyone would have to agree to it and sign up. On the other hand, it's also a numbers game. If more and more people adopt it, then other people will use it because it's the easiest thing to do."

Considering the number of satellites being launched by SpaceX and, soon, Amazon, that numbers game could well end up taking the decision away from regulators.

As Manfletti observes, if technology and regulatory adoption are not accelerated: "Whoever has put the greatest number of satellites in orbit will dictate what's going to happen." ®

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