Slingshot Aerospace has landed a $25.2 million contract from the U.S. Space Force (USSF) to scale up its Digital Space Twins for representing satellite orbits, space weather and radio interference. The investment will help the company develop a government version of its tech for war gaming and mission planning. In addition, it will also fund Slingshot Laboratory to improve space training.
Government and commercial operators plan to launch upwards of 115,000 satellites by 2030, which raises the risk of collisions. The growing number of satellites also increases the chances that some satellites could launch attacks on others, either by the operators themselves or hackers that manage to compromise the control systems.
Satellite operators consider dozens of approaches when launching a new satellite into orbit, including space weather, the orbit, space debris and the dynamics of their spacecraft. A digital twin can help them model and evaluate the safest, fastest and most effective way to meet their objectives and deploy satellites.
The company’s Digital Space Twin combines real-time mapping of objects in orbit and space weather data with physics-based simulations to show users how planned missions will behave in the real space environment. The new digital twin build’s on the Slingshot Beacon service that provides a kind of air traffic control system for satellite operators. The service was launched last August and took advantage of the Slingshot acquisition of Stellatus Solutions earlier in the year.
Slingshot Beacon helps operations teams share updates about their satellite fleets with each other and provides an actively curated directory of operator contacts and reports on environmental anomalies such as solar flares. It also automates workflows to screen for possible collisions and adjust orbits to compensate. The service is used by companies such as OneWeb, Spire Global, Orbit Fab and others that currently account for over half the satellite constellations in low-earth orbit.
The company has been developing the Digital Space Twin tool throughout the last two years. The latest contract will help align the software with USSF requirements to analyze and respond to current and future threats. Slingshot also plans to launch a commercial product before the final government deployment.
Like many aspects of technologies, the number of satellites scheduled for launch is growing exponentially. This is a great thing when it comes to improving mapping, communication and planning for climate change. It becomes bad when it comes down to mitigating the impact of space junk, security risks and radio interference.
“I recognized how quickly the space domain was becoming increasingly complex with a growing number of satellites, vast amounts of orbital debris and more nations competing for superiority,” Slingshot cofounder Melanie Stricklan told VentureBeat.
She and Thomas Ashman cofounded Slingshot to accelerate space sustainability and create a safer, more connected world. They later joined forces with entrepreneur David Godwin in 2017 to solve this problem for space operators.
The number of satellites has tripled since they launched the company in 2017 to over 7,000 today and is expected to grow to 115,000 by 2030.
“As space becomes more congested, the risk of crashes dramatically increases, which means collision avoidance decisions and maneuvers will need to be made across all government, commercial and civil space entities,” Stricklan said.
Constellation planning is growing in importance as teams identify the most cost-effective ways to launch larger fleets and then safely decommission them at the end of life. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched more than 2,000 lower-cost satellites. The FCC has authorized the company to deploy 12,000 more and has submitted filings to the International Telecommunications Union to approve spectrum for an additional 30,000 satellites.
Similarly, Amazon’s Project Kuiper is planning a constellation of 3,236 satellites. Meanwhile, several other organizations are also planning large satellite constellations, including China’s Guo Wang (12,992), UK’s OneWeb (6,372) and South Korea’s Samsung (4,700).
A comprehensive digital twin of space could aid with improving the complex planning of these large constellations. It could also help other smaller efforts avoid the rapidly growing fleet of live satellites and dead ones that fail to burn up at the end of their useful life properly.
In addition to the growing number of satellites, operators need to plan for four threat categories that could compromise sustainability in orbit, including:
- Increased debris could render Earth’s orbit more challenging to access.
- A conflict could increase debris and complicate operations.
- Space weather events could damage hardware directly and increase debris for others.
- Radio-frequency congestion and degradation.
The digital twin captures new data about objects in space from various sources reflecting electromagnetic interference, space weather, debris models and observations.
“It is necessary for the Digital Space Twin to ingest as much reliable data as possible from all these sources in order for it to deliver useful interactive information,” Stricklan said. This helps users predict future behaviors of objects in the space environment, understand the trends by looking at current and past data and enables higher-confidence mapping, modeling and scenario planning.
Then it models their movement and simulates future scenarios. For example, it could allow teams to simulate nefarious acts such as explosions, ramming, or electromagnetic attacks on satellites to help teams plan various responses and assess the outcomes. Satellite operators could also plan out the best course of action when unknown objects approach a satellite.
The initial focus is on twinning the space closest to the Earth, ranging from low-earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous orbit (GEO). But even when considering these closer orbits, it is essential to consider the whole space domain, since every source of information may impact satellites and spacecraft within these orbits.
Competitors focused on space sustainability include companies like Leo Labs and Kayhan. Leo Labs offers a space mapping service calibrated by ground-based phased arrays radars. Kayhan has developed a suite of integrated spaceflight operations tools. Slingshot is focused on virtualizing the entire space operating environment, including space weather and radio interference.
All three companies provide complementary services to help scale space operations safely and sustainably. “It will take a collective effort across the entire industry to ensure that space remains a tenet of our global economy for generations to come,” Stricklan said.
Big data for big twins
Most digital twins focus on individual things like a consumer product, vehicle, or building. The Digital Space Twin models the larger space environment and is designed to scale with petabytes of data.
Other leading companies are similarly twinning whole environments for climate change research, sustainability planning, smart cities and supply chains. Nvidia recently announced plans to map over 500,000 kilometers of roads by 2024 that could be continuously updated with new data from passenger vehicles.
Stricklan said, “While these larger-scale digitized environments are rare now, they are rapidly becoming more common for all types of industries. Engineers and designers are now learning that a digital twin of a piece of hardware, whether it be a car, plane, or rocket, can only provide so much useful information. Instead, they need a twin of the environment that hardware is operating within to generate useful data that speeds up their development cycle, increases safety and boosts quality.”
In some ways, this represents a full circle for the initial ideas behind digital twins. Michael Grieves points towards the initial work simulating Apollo 13 moon missions in the 1960s in planting the seeds for modern digital twins.
Nasa simulators ingested data from multiple sources, including telemetry and simulated outcomes in response. This allowed engineering teams to run various simulations between astronauts and engineers ahead of departure and it came in handy when things broke down on a mission in 1970. The engineering team on the ground helped the astronauts troubleshoot problems, which was critical in bringing the astronauts safely home.
Massive advancements in sensing and data management have enabled Slingshot to adapt these core ideas to space itself. “While organizations have been digital twinning specific hardware for years, Slingshot Aerospace is the first company creating a digital twin of the entire space operating environment, both physical and non-physical,” Stricklan said.