As you might’ve heard, it’s getting a little crowded in space, between thousand-satellite constellations à la SpaceX’s Starlink and the millions of pieces of space junk accumulated from decades of launches. But it’s also getting a little crowded in the space-monitoring space, with a number of companies competing to create observation systems to help satellite and launch operators protect their assets from orbiting debris.
One of the newest entrants to the field is Vyoma, a German company spun out of TUM, founded by Christoph Bamann, Luisa Buinhas and Stefan Frey. Vyoma’s goal is to track objects in low Earth orbit (LEO) using a constellation of observation satellites, then use machine learning to automate collision avoidance procedures for clients’ satellites.
“Of the 1 million objects larger than one centimeter circling Earth today, estimated by ESA, less than 5% are tracked regularly. Hence, satellite operators are flying blindly, and the risk of accidental collision is high,” Frey tells TechCrunch.
Right now, LEO monitoring is primarily limited to military operations that keep an eye on larger space debris, about 10 centimeters in diameter. And, naturally, given the military source, that data is not shared widely. As such, there’s demand for private companies like Vyoma to develop their own tracking programs, ones that are far more sensitive and can be shared internationally.
While space-tracking competitors like LeoLabs primarily use ground-based observation methods, Vyoma intends to launch a proprietary space-based monitoring system — it wants to get up close and personal with space junk, monitoring debris from a small constellation of camera-toting satellites.
It might seem counterintuitive to help monitor space junk by adding more satellites to orbit, but there’s an advantage to this system.
“By being spaceborne, we can observe objects up to 30 times a day, covering nearly 100% of all dangerous objects one centimeter and above. The high frequency of observations allows us to do very accurate predictions of the trajectories of debris objects,” Buinhas tells TechCrunch. “Furthermore, from the images, we can also infer how the objects behave, for instance, if they are tumbling, if they have a uniform rotation, what properties they have, like dimensions, materials, et cetera.”
The satellites will have two modes: surveillance and tasked-tracking. Surveillance mode will see each satellite continuously imaging the environment around it during its orbit — all objects it sees will be cataloged in Vyoma’s database. Then in tasked-tracking mode, one or more satellites will focus on a single object or event, providing real-time data.
Vyoma will then use machine learning to synthesize that data to provide nearly instantaneous collision-avoidance commands to clients’ satellites.
In that aspect, Vyoma is in competition with Kayhan Space and Slingshot Aerospace, which are also vying to become a sort of international air traffic control for LEO. Kayhan and Slingshot Aerospace, however, are pulling their tracking data from multiple sources, whereas Vyoma’s data will be generated in-house (well, off-planet). Its approach is most similar to Scout’s, which is also planning an optical debris-tracking satellite network.
That said, Vyoma has not yet launched its satellites, so it’s currently using external data from ground-based partners to provide its services. But the company is progressing toward its launch goals.
Just last year, Vyoma closed pre-seed and seed rounds (of undisclosed sizes), kicking off the production of its space cameras. It also won the German NewSpace Award and the Weconomy award, indicating its strength in the European market. (Most of the other major players are based in the United States.)
Vyoma hopes to test its image-processing procedures in space later this year, with the goal of launching its pilot satellites by the end of 2023.
“Launch costs have dramatically reduced over the past few years, leading to a remarkable increase in the number of launches,” says Frey. “The more satellites in space, the more dangerous situations will occur, the more pressing are space traffic management solutions such as ours. We want to make sure that space is safe also for future generations.”