New Space and Tech

Euro Startup Look Up Space Makes Nimble Play for Private Orbital Traffic Management Market

By Jon Kelvey
July 6, 2023
Filed under , ,
Euro Startup Look Up Space Makes Nimble Play for Private Orbital Traffic Management Market
Illustration of a high-performance SORASYS Ground-Based Radars deployed worldwide enabling accurate centimeter-class object detection and tracking with high revisit rates. Image credit: Look Up Space.

That space is big is a given, but in reality the space in low Earth orbit isn’t nearly as big as everyone hoping to fly satellites, space stations or spacecraft there would really like it to be.

There are currently more than 6,700 active satellites in orbit, and that number is poised to grow exponentially as companies like SpaceX and Amazon work on building mega constellations of tens of thousands of satellites over the next few years.  Meanwhile, nearly 20,000 pieces known pieces of debris, some as small as a centimeter — but still dangerous while zipping about at 17,000 miles per hour (27354 km/hr) — create navigational hazards for the increasing number of functioning spacecraft.

“We say that space is an increasingly congested and contested environment,” says Juan Carlos Dolado, former head of space surveillance at the French space agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, or CNES. Dolado’s work included protecting 300 European satellites from any potential collisions in orbit, and he found that not only do satellite operators have to move satellites to avoid potential collisions, a lack of clear and sufficient data on space debris and other satellites often leads them to move satellites when they might not really need to.

“The number of false alarms that force them to maneuver is a waste of time,” Dolado says, a waste of delta-v — a waste of energy” that ultimately costs operators money.

So in 2022, Dolado teamed up with General Michel Friedling, former commander of France’s Space Command, to form Look Up Space, a start up that plans to deploy powerful radars around the globe and pair them with a software analytics system to offer governments and companies real time data on space traffic. The company recently announced raising 14 million Euros in seed money, the largest such investment in a space company in France to date.

“We decided to create Look Up Space to improve our ability to detect objects, to get information  on what is up there, to improve orbital information, and, in the end, to improve safe space flight,” Dolado says.

It’s not that no one had thought to keep track of things in orbit to try and avoid collisions before, but the old infrastructure just isn’t suited to the task. For decades, the US Air Force, and since 2019, the Space Force, tracked objects in space and would alert spacecraft and satellite operators of potential collisions.

But the US military space tracking systems weren’t established with widespread commercial space ventures in mind.

“Because it’s a military tracking system, we don’t always want to give away exact coordinates of where things are,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb, a space policy expert and instructor at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

That the military can’t fully partner in information sharing with other nations and private companies due to national security reasons is one reason why the Trump administration in 2018 began the process of transferring responsibility for tracking objects in space for civilian purposes to the Office of Space Commerce within the US Department of Commerce, which is developing the Traffic Management System for Space, or TraCSS program.

But “the transition hasn’t fully taken place and there’s a lot that has to go on. Commerce doesn’t necessarily have a lot of space expertise in these areas,” Whitman Cobb says. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities here” for private companies to supplement the type of data the Space Force is providing now, and that TraCSS will provide later. Particularly because the Department of Commerce program won’t be building its own radar installations, potentially limiting its tracking capabilities.

“Commerce is not gonna be able to take over all of those [military] radar and satellite tracking systems,” Whitman Cobb says. “They are still going to reside in the military, even though commerce is running the database.”

Look up Space plans to build a global network of its own radars, aiming for a first first demonstration of its ground-based SORASYS radar technology sometime in 2024, according to Dolado. The company will take a different approach than the US military, using smaller, less expensive radar he claims will be capable of detecting objects as small as a centimeter in diameter.

“We are not just using the same systems that are used by governments, which normally are huge systems that go from hundreds of millions to more than $1 billion,” Dolado says. “This ability to develop high performance, not so expensive systems will allow us to deploy a global network.”

Data from the Look up Space radars will be fused with data from other sources in the company’s SYNAPSE software system. The first version of SYNAPSE is already operational, according to Dolado, and the company expects to have its first client for SYNAPSE powered services in September.

Look Up Space clients could include governments and militaries more interested in hostile powers’ threats to their satellites than collision avoidance, he says, as well as companies that just want to avoid running their satellites into things, or having to move their satellites over a false alarm.

There’s really little risk from private actors getting into space traffic management, according to  Whitman Cobb, and that’s partly because calling it management is really a misnomer — no entity, not even the US Space Force, currently holds any sort of authority to order a spacecraft or satellite operator to move something in orbit, according to Whitman Cobb. In lieu of any real orbital traffic cop, the more data and data sharing on what is going on in the orbital lanes, the safer space operations for everyone will be.

“I think it’s more than welcome,” Whitman Cobb says. “More eyes on the sky are going to be better because space is only going to get more congested in the years ahead as all these mega-constellations start going up.”

Jon Kelvey

Jon Kelvey is a science writer covering space, aerospace, and biosciences. His work has appeared in publications such as Air & Space Magazine, Earth and Space News, Slate, and Smithsonian in addition to SpaceRef.