Maintaining satellites on orbit and ensuring they make full use of their operational lifespan has never been more important, given concerns around sustainable operations in an increasingly crowded orbital environment. As companies tighten their belts financially to deal with the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19, too, it’s more important than ever for in-space assets to live up to their max potential. A startup called High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics has a very clever solution that makes use of existing satellites to provide monitoring services for others, generating revenue from unused Earth-imaging satellite time and providing a valuable maintenance service all at the same time.
HEO’s model employs cameras already on orbit mounted on Earth-observation satellites operated by partner companies, and tasks them with collecting images of the satellites of its customers, who are looking to ensure their spacecraft are in good working order, oriented in the correct way and with all their payloads properly deployed. Onboard instrumentation can provide satellite operators with a lot of diagnostic information, but sometimes there are problems only external photography can properly identify, or that require confirmation or further detail to resolve.
The beauty of HEO’s model is that it’s truly a win for all involved; Earth-observation satellites generally aren’t in use at all times — they have considerable down time, in particular when they’re over open water, for instance, HEO’s founder and CEO William Crowe tells me.
“We try to use the satellites at otherwise low-value times, like when they are over the ocean (which of course is most of the time),” Crowe said via email. “We also task our partners just like we would as a regular Earth-imaging business, specifying an area on Earth’s surface to image, the exception being that there is always a spacecraft in the field-of-view.”
The company is early on in its trajectory, but it has just released a proof-of-concept capture of the International Space Station, as seen in the slides provided by HEO below. The image was captured by a satellite owned by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, which is operated by commercial satellite operator SI Imaging Services. HEO’s software compensated for the relative velocity of the satellite to the ISS, which was a very fast 10 km/s (around 6.2 miles per second). The company says it’s working toward getting even higher-resolution images.
The beauty of HEO’s model is that it actually requires no capital expenditure to work, in terms of the satellites used: Crowe explained that they currently pay-per-use, which means they only spend when they have a client request, so that the revenue covers the cost of tasking the partner satellite. HEO does plan to launch its own satellites in the “medium-term,” however, Crowe said, in order to cover the gaps that currently exist in coverage and in anticipation of an explosion in the low Earth orbit satellite population, which is expected to expand from the existing 2,000 or so spacecraft to as many as 100,000 or more over roughly the next decade.
HEO could ultimately provide imaging of not only other satellites, but also space debris to help with removal efforts, and even asteroids that could prove potential targets for mining and resource gathering. It’s a remarkably well-considered idea that stands to benefit from the explosion of growth in the orbital satellite industry, and also stands out among space startups because it has a near-term path to revenue that doesn’t require a massive outlay of capital up front.