An artificial intelligence-driven space debris evasion system could soon replace teams of experts tackling the growing number of orbital collision threats in an increasingly cluttered near-Earth environment.
Every two weeks, spacecraft dispatchers at the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, are required to conduct evasive maneuvers with one of their 20 satellites in low Earth orbit, ” said Holger Krag, head of space safety at the European Space Agency (ESA) … ) said at a press conference organized by ESA during the 8th European Space Debris Conference, which was held virtually in Darmstadt, Germany, April 20-23. Agency teams track and carefully evaluate at least five times the number of close contacts, each requiring several – the disciplinary team must be in touch 24/7 for several days.
“Every collision avoidance maneuver is inconvenient,” Craig said. “Not only because of the fuel consumption, but also because of the necessary preparation. We have to book passes to the ground station, which costs money, sometimes we even have to turn off scientific data collection. We need an expert team available around the clock. “
It is expected that the frequency of such situations will only increase. Not all collision warnings are triggered by pieces of space debris. Companies such as Spacex, OneWeb and Amazon are building megaconstellations from thousands of satellites, putting more spacecraft into orbit in one month than were launched in a year just a few years ago. This increase in space traffic is of concern to space debris specialists. In fact, ESA has said that nearly half of the connection alerts currently being tracked by the agency’s operators are related to the constellation’s small satellites and spaceships.
Therefore, ESA has asked the global artificial intelligence community to help develop a system that will take care of autonomous space debris evasion, or at least reduce the burden on expert teams.
“We have provided the global expert community with a large set of historical data on past conjunction alerts and instructed them to use AI. [Artificial Intelligence] to predict the development of collision risk for each warning within three days of the warning, “said Rolf Densing, ESA’s director of operations at a press conference.
“The results aren’t perfect yet, but in many cases the AI was able to replicate the decision-making process and correctly identify when we had to perform an avoidance maneuver.”
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The agency will explore new approaches to developing artificial intelligence, such as deep learning and neural networks, to improve the accuracy of the algorithms, Tim Florer, head of ESA’s Space Debris Authority, told Space.com.
“Standard AI algorithms are trained on huge datasets,” Florer said. “But the cases where we actually did the maneuvers are not so many from an AI point of view. In the next step, we’ll take a closer look at specialized AI approaches that can work with smaller datasets. “
For now, artificial intelligence algorithms can help ground teams as they evaluate and track each connection warning, warning that one of their satellites might be on a collision course with another orbiting body. Such AI assistance will help reduce the number of experts involved and help the agency cope with the expected increase in space traffic in the near future, Florer said. The decision of whether or not to perform a flanking maneuver is still up to the human operator.
“At this point, we have automated everything that would require the expert brain to stay awake 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to respond to and monitor collision warnings,” Craig said. “Making the final decision on whether to do a workaround or not is the most difficult part to automate, and we hope to find a solution to this problem within the next few years.”
Ultimately, Dansing added, the global community must work together to create a collision avoidance system, like a modern air traffic control system, that will operate completely autonomously, without the need for people on the ground to communicate.
“In the area of air traffic, they have taken a step forward,” said Densing. “Maneuvers to avoid collisions between aircraft are decentralized and occur automatically. We have not yet achieved that and it will probably require a little more international coordination and discussion. “
Not only are science satellites at risk of orbital collisions, but spaceships like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may also be affected. The recently reported Crew Dragon Endeavor with four astronauts on board came dangerously close to a small wreck on Saturday, April 24, during a flight to the International Space Station. The collision warning forced the astronauts to interrupt their leisure time, put on their spacesuits again and buckle up in their seats to prepare for a possible collision.
According to ESAAbout 11,370 satellites have been launched since 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched a sonic balloon called Sputnik into orbit. About 6,900 of these satellites remain in orbit, but only 4,000 continue to function.
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