Planet operates the world's largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites, collecting a massive amount of information about our changing planet. The company is also an industry leader in establishing best practices designed to keep space navigable for future generations of space entrepreneurs.
"LEO is a powerful platform for delivering services like Planet's, enabling us to monitor environmental change and economic activity on a global scale," says James Mason, Vice President of Mission Operations at Planet. "It's critical to our company, and to our industrial counterparts, that LEO remain safely usable. That's why we are excited to share with the entire industry the commercial best practices we've developed with LeoLabs to keep satellites safe from collisions."
Today, collisions in space are prevented through the use of conjunction data messages (CDMs) issued by the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC). LeoLabs has enhanced the safety of Planet's satellites by providing additional information on the debris identified in the CDMs.
"When a piece of debris is identified as concerning by the JSpOC, LeoLabs schedules extra radar observations of that piece of debris so that its trajectory and the probability of it colliding with a satellite are more quickly understood," says Mike Nicolls, LeoLabs' Chief Technology Officer and cofounder. "This detailed information enhances a satellite operator's understanding of the environment around their satellites, enabling them to rule out non-threatening debris and to maneuver their satellites to mitigate true risks."
Satellite operations teams continually monitor the CDMs they receive from JSpOC and typically maneuver their satellites in the days before a possible collision. For many satellites a maneuver entails firing thrusters to speed up or slow down the satellite. Planet's Dove satellites do not have thrusters, but instead spin around to change the orientation of their solar panels and atmospheric drag does the rest, a technique Planet calls differential drag. The accurate tracking data provided by LeoLabs allows these small maneuvers to be performed safely around debris objects.
Automation is critical for making this service practical for the next generation of satellite constellations, which will have hundreds to thousands of satellites. "Satellite operators interact with our services through our RESTful API," said Mike Nicolls. "This enables fully automated safety systems that can scale to extremely large constellations."
"This is only the beginning," says Dan Ceperley, CEO and cofounder of LeoLabs. "We are expanding our radar network to track even smaller debris, which is not tracked today. We want satellite companies to be successful even when there are 10,000 or more satellites in LEO."
LeoLabs uses state of the art, patented phased-array radars to offer commercial data services for LEO. These services include orbit determination, early operational support, and ongoing conjunction awareness. The offerings are targeted for commercial satellite operators, government regulatory and space agencies, and satellite management services firms. LeoLabs is a venture-funded corporation based in Menlo Park, California.