Slingshot lands $25.2 million contract for digital space twin

Slingshot Aerospace has been awarded a $25.2 million contract from the US Space Force (USSF) to scale up its Digital Space Twins for displaying satellite orbits, space weather and radio interference. The investment will help the company develop a government version of its war gaming and mission planning technology. In addition, the Slingshot Laboratory will also fund to improve space training.

Government and commercial operators plan to launch more than 115,000 satellites by 2030, increasing the risk of collisions. The growing number of satellites also increases the likelihood that some satellites can launch attacks on others, either by the operators themselves or by hackers who manage to compromise the control systems.

Satellite operators consider dozens of approaches when putting a new satellite into orbit, including space weather, its orbit, space debris, and their spacecraft dynamics. A digital twin can help them model and evaluate the safest, fastest and most effective way to achieve their objectives and deploy satellites.

The company’s Digital Space Twin combines real-time mapping of objects in orbit and space weather data with physics-based simulations to show users how planned missions will behave in the real space environment. The new digital twin builds on the Slingshot Beacon service that provides a sort of air traffic control system for satellite operators. The service launched last August and took advantage of Stellatus Solutions’ Slingshot acquisition earlier this year.

Slingshot Beacon helps operations teams share updates on their satellite fleets and provides an actively curated list of operator contacts and reports on environmental anomalies such as solar flares. It also automates workflows to screen for potential collisions and adjust jobs to compensate. The service is used by companies such as OneWeb, Spire Global, Orbit Fab and others that currently account for more than half of the satellite constellations in low Earth orbit.

The company has been developing the Digital Space Twin tool for the past two years. The latest contract helps align the software with USSF requirements to analyze and respond to current and future threats. Slingshot also plans to launch a commercial product before its final government implementation.

Growing exponentially

Like many aspects of technologies, the number of satellites scheduled for launch is growing exponentially. This is a good thing when it comes to improving climate change mapping, communication and planning. It gets bad when it comes to reducing the impact of space debris, security risks and radio interference.

“I recognized how quickly the space domain was becoming more and more complex with a growing number of satellites, massive amounts of orbital debris and more countries vying for superiority,” Slingshot co-founder Melanie Stricklan told VentureBeat.

She and Thomas Ashman co-founded Slingshot to accelerate the sustainability of space and create a safer, more connected world. They later joined forces with entrepreneur David Godwin in 2017 to solve this problem for space operators.

The number of satellites has tripled since the company’s launch in 2017 to more than 7,000 today and is expected to grow to 115,000 by 2030.

“As space becomes more congested, the risk of crashes increases dramatically, meaning collision avoidance decisions and maneuvers must be made by all government, commercial and civilian space entities,” Stricklan said.

Constellation planning is becoming increasingly important as teams identify the most cost-effective ways to launch larger fleets and then safely decommission them at the end of their useful lives. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched more than 2,000 cheaper satellites. The FCC has authorized the company to deploy 12,000 more and has filed filings with the International Telecommunications Union to approve spectrum for an additional 30,000 satellites.

Similarly, Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans a constellation of 3,236 satellites. Meanwhile, several other organizations are also planning major satellite constellations, including China’s Guo Wang (12,992), Britain’s OneWeb (6,372) and South Korean Samsung (4,700).

An expanded digital twin of space could help improve the complex planning of these major constellations. It could also help other smaller efforts to avoid the burgeoning fleet of living satellites and dead satellites that don’t burn up properly at the end of their useful life.

In addition to the growing number of satellites, operators must plan for four threat categories that could compromise the sustainability of orbit, including:

More debris could make access to Earth’s orbit more difficult. A conflict could increase the rubble and complicate operations. Space weather can damage hardware directly and increase the debris for others. Radio frequency congestion and degradation.

Twinning space

The digital twin captures new data about objects in space from a variety of sources reflecting electromagnetic interference, space weather, debris models and observations.

“It is necessary for the Digital Space Twin to incorporate as much reliable data as possible from all of these sources in order to provide useful interactive information,” Stricklan said. This helps users predict future behavior of objects in the space environment, understand trends by looking at current and past data, and enable higher reliability mapping, modeling and scenario planning.

It then models their movement and simulate future scenarios. For example, it could enable teams to simulate nefarious acts such as explosions, ramming or electromagnetic attacks on satellites to help teams plan different responses and assess the results. Satellite operators can also plan the best course of action when unknown objects approach a satellite.

The first focus is on fraternizing the space closest to Earth, ranging from low Earth orbit (LEO) to geosynchronous orbit (GEO). But even when considering these narrower orbits, it is essential to consider the entire space domain, as any source of information can affect satellites and spacecraft within these orbits.

Competitors focusing on space sustainability include companies like Leo Labs and Kayhan. Leo Labs offers a space mapping service calibrated by ground-based phased arrays radars. Kayhan has developed a suite of integrated spaceflight operations tools. Slingshot aims to virtualize the entire operational environment of space, including space weather and radio interference.

All three companies offer additional services to safely and sustainably scale space operations. “It will take a collective effort from the entire industry to ensure that space remains a tenet of our global economy for generations to come,” said Stricklan.

Big data for big twins

Most digital twins focus on individual things like a consumer product, vehicle, or building. The Digital Space Twin models the larger space environment and is designed to scale with petabytes of data.

Other leading companies are similarly pooling entire environments for climate change research, sustainability planning, smart cities and supply chains. Nvidia recently announced plans to map more than 500,000 kilometers of roads by 2024 that can be continuously updated with new passenger car data.

Stricklan said: “While these large-scale digitized environments are now rare, they are quickly becoming more common for all types of industries. Engineers and designers are now learning that a digital twin of a piece of hardware, be it a car, plane or rocket, only produces so many useful Instead, they need a twin of the environment in which hardware operates to generate actionable data that accelerate their development cycle, increase security and increase quality.”

In some ways, this represents full circle for the early ideas behind digital twins. Michael Grieves points to the first work simulating Apollo 13 lunar missions in the 1960s when planting the seeds for modern digital twins.

In response, NASA simulators ingested data from multiple sources, including telemetry and simulated results. This allowed engineering teams to run several simulations between astronauts and engineers before departure, and it came in handy when things broke down during a mission in 1970. The technical team on the ground helped the astronauts solve problems, which was critical to getting the astronauts home safely.

Massive advances in discovery and data management have allowed Slingshot to adapt these core ideas to the space itself. “While organizations have been using dedicated hardware for digital twinning for years, Slingshot Aerospace is the first company to create a digital twin of the entire operational environment in space, both physical and non-physical,” said Stricklan.

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