It was 65 years ago that the first satellite, Russia’s beach-ball sized space probe Sputnik 1, launched into Earth’s orbit. Aside from naturally-occurring meteoroids, Sputnik drifted alone in a pristine realm, like a shiny new car on a remote desert highway, only the occasional tumbleweed rolling past. Incredibly, today, low-Earth orbit (LEO) is so crowded with satellites and orbital debris that it is increasingly difficult for space vehicles and astronauts to move about without risk of being hit by another object. There’s just not room.
Since 2020 alone, the number of space objects, or nonfunctioning orbital debris, being tracked by the U.S. Department of Defense in low-Earth orbit (LEO) has grown from 22,000 to about 45,000, and the number of active satellites has increased from 1,500 to almost 5,500, most traveling near 17,000 mph. The majority of these satellites provide important services, such as communication capabilities/internet, scientific observation, and military defense. However, their numbers are creating a fast-moving swirl of congestion that significantly endangers their integrity and their missions. According to NASA, particles as small as tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when moving at these velocities. Further, the space highway is expected to gain as many as 100,000 satellites and satellite constellations in the next decade. Nearly 40,000 were proposed to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in November 2021 alone.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to calculate that rapid multiplication of assets in an already populated arena will soon exacerbate an existing problem. Without equally rapid intervention to protect LEO space assets from collision, the pace of space exploration will be unsustainable.
SCOUT, a startup that provides in-space observation data and services to refine debris detection and removal techniques, has been emerging alongside the growing number of satellites since 2019. Based in Alexandria, Va., today, SCOUT works closely with key federal agencies as well as with industry to improve in-space situational awareness, vastly reducing risk and ensuring the momentum of space development is not disrupted.
In fact, SCOUT co-founder and CTO Sergio Galluci was one of 15 experts who helped inform the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s 2022 report to Congress about how to mitigate the effects of large constellations of satellites in low-Earth orbit. Gallucci’s partner, SCOUT CEO Eric Ingram, went so far in a recent op-ed in The Hill to call upon the government for a fast-tracked, multi-pronged, industry-collaborative approach to mitigate debris and collision lest the window of opportunity closes. In addition to regulation, Ingram cited infrastructure advances from the private sector, such as technology being developed by SCOUT, as integral to timely space protection.
That Gallucci and Ingram are respected voices in D.C. is no accident. Their visibility and credibility at the federal level is in some part due to SCOUT’s participation in the 2021 Hyperspace Challenge, which called upon 13 select startups and 11 universities to address critical U.S. Space Force needs.
SCOUT took second place among the startups with its SCOUT-Vision technology, a space-based optical sensor and computing payload system built for in-space object detection, tracking, and collision avoidance. However, Gallucci says the greatest reward has been the relationships forged during the experience and the transformative conversations that are occurring today as a result. He recently cited in an op-ed in the Milsat Magazine the challenges being faced in keeping the space domain safe, calling for an overhauling of processes and capabilities being deployed to ensure space safety.
HSPC: Would you describe what SCOUT does and why your work is indispensable to the future of space exploration and development?
Sure. We provide dual-use space tracking, navigation, and intelligence capabilities, with the mission of making the entire space domain safer, more transparent, and more sustainable. Specifically, we’re delivering spacecraft vision systems, spacecraft autonomy and navigation software, and space domain awareness data products to a wide array of customers. Even though we’re still a relatively young company, we have a number of government and commercial efforts already underway, and we definitely have Hyperspace to thank for helping us to make critical connections.
HSPC: Sustainability is really what’s at issue here. How does your technology help to reverse the trend toward increased congestion and collision risk?
One of the keys to space sustainability is to avoid producing more space junk – anything human made that’s no longer serving a useful function. One of the ways a satellite, for example, can produce space junk is to be hit by another object and inadvertently become space junk. We’re providing to our partners and customers technology that augments their spacecraft with local situational awareness, so that they can more safely navigate a satellite around complex environments and during missions where proximity operations or formation flight are required. It’s not just a dash cam that shows things around you. Our systems extract data from their surroundings, take measurements and estimations of objects near and far, and then conduct a predictive analysis to inform navigation. So, our vision systems and our autonomous navigation systems and software are really built to make operations safer. Basically, we can tell a spacecraft when it needs to switch lanes to avoid a wreck.
On the flip side, there’s the issue of space junk removal. We’re providing vision systems that can facilitate those kinds of operations, enabling debris to be located and picked up in a safe manner. By increasing awareness of where things are in space, you reduce the likelihood of collision, and by picking up debris that exists, you create more space. Both foster a sustainable environment.
HSPC: In just the past few months, the federal government has made efforts on the policy side to address growing debris in LEO. For example, the FCC on September 29 voted unanimously to adopt a “five-year rule,” requiring spacecraft to deorbit no more than five years after the end of their mission. How, if at all, are these kinds of policies shaping your work?
I think that the policies coming out of the various agencies are affecting the work that we do and the prospects that we have. A lot of the movement on the policy side is starting to reflect an understanding that collision risks are not only important but also that time is of the essence to address them. People are now focusing on data and the digestion and dissemination of data to inform what’s going on in space. As a high-quality data source, we’re becoming leaders in that sphere. Since we founded the company in 2019, we’ve been saying that satellites flying blind is a problem. and that space traffic management and space domain awareness are limited by the fidelity of data that you can get at the satellite level. And as we continue to push out our products and our solutions, we are definitely being bolstered by the policy side of things completely agreeing with the direction we’re taking. One of the things that is really interesting about how SCOUT perceives the evolving domain is that many of our competitors are actually our partners too.
HSPC: That’s so interesting because relationship-building and de-siloing efforts are really integral aspects of the Hyperspace Challenge. Can you expound on what you are seeing when it comes to collaboration within the growing space economy?
Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen a huge shift in how collaborative companies are becoming – both small and big. I think there’s absolutely a complementary nature to most of the technical development going on today. Space is really big, and many of us are aiming for advancement of space logistics and of space infrastructure. On the SCOUT side, we’re positioning ourselves as a source of data that both our collaborators and competitors can leverage. We don’t see an advantage to blocking others; we want to augment the general enterprise of space domain awareness and traffic management in the U.S. and among our allied countries too. The fact that Hyperspace is helping to foster that mindset, I believe, really helps everyone be more successful.
HSPC: How did the Hyperspace Challenge advance your work?
SCOUT was just founded in 2019, and almost up to when we participated in the 2021 cohort it was a two-person enterprise – me and Eric. Before then, we had focused on building data around our fundamental capabilities and prototyping. What we were missing was a really good understanding of how the Department of Defense (DOD) could support the development of our capabilities. I understood the DOD mission and the general technical needs, but there was connective tissue that was absent regarding deployment. We didn’t know how to engage directly with DOD customers and how to leverage the DOD resources to accelerate our development. Hyperspace gave us a very functional understanding of the breadth of opportunities within DOD. Not only has SCOUT grown to employ 15 people, but we’ve got a nice balance of customers and partners on the private side and in government. Hyperspace was integral to advancing our customer discovery and product testing. Today, we’re working directly with Space Delta 2, the Space Operations Command’s space domain awareness delta; the Air Force Research Laboratory intelligence systems division; the Space Systems Command (SSC); and other end-users and customers across the government to ensure that the data we produce is actually what they need to operate safely in space.
HSPC: What advice would you give to startups considering applying for Hyperspace Challenge?
Similar to space domain awareness, a business needs to leverage a lot of data points to be successful. You need to get as many diverse data points as possible so that you can actually build a holistic understanding of the world you’re working with. Coming into the program is a huge opportunity, in part because it provides significant post research and development support and can help a startup hone product development, as well as accelerate and diversify sales. There are end users and customers and a breadth of connections that Hyperspace Challenge gives you access to. Getting more data, continuously asking questions, making sure that you’re not biased in the kinds of questions that you’re asking of all of these invaluable resources, are all important: through this process you discover details that you weren’t looking for, but which are staring you in the face. That’s really the name of the game.
To learn more about SCOUT’s developments, visit https://scout.space/.