Good Stewards of Space: Spaceflight Steps Up To Assist Customers in Tracking and Identification of Spacecraft

Space is a shared environment. It is up to all of us in the industry and beyond to make sure we’re being good stewards of this environment, just as we are all responsible for our shared planet. That’s why we are taking new steps to up-level our stewardship of space.

Tony Frego, Senior Director of Mission Management

There are two important aspects of this stewardship here at Spaceflight: 

  1. Ensuring our customers are able to quickly make contact with their spacecraft and, 
  2. Making sure that spacecraft TLE (Two-line element) information is quickly provided to interagency partners, such as the 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs. An accurate cataloging of spacecraft reduces recontact opportunities and other on-orbit risks. 

While it is our customers’ responsibility to identify their spacecraft and report TLEs to U.S. interagency partners, we know from our years of experience that many are unable to do this for various reasons. With this in mind, Spaceflight has instituted new protocols to proactively help our customers with these tasks and set them up for success — which helps all of us. 

The minutes, hours, and days after a spacecraft separates from a launch vehicle are critical. We are given the exact TLE information for our vehicles upon deployment from the launch vehicle, which we then pass to customers. After that, the race is on to estimate their path, and make contact from a ground station. But it isn’t always a straight line. The more time that passes after separation, the harder it is to locate exactly where a satellite is, and where to point ground stations to make contact. There are many things that can complicate things – lack of familiarity with ground stations, and the velocity of the spacecraft can change after deployment, due to drag, resulting in the spacecraft not being in the projected location to make contact. Even when everything works perfectly, and satellites from one mission are quickly contacted, this information is critical to those who haven’t made contact yet – by eliminating known satellites, those still looking to make contact can focus efforts on the few remaining unidentified ones.

Here’s what’s new:

  • Our first step to helping customers is partnering with LeoLabs, who offers a Launch and Early Orbit (LEOP) service to aid in tracking a spacecraft in those first critical early hours and days of a mission. LeoLabs will further provide 60 days of Tracking and Monitoring and Collision Avoidance services for our customers after the LEOP period. 
  • As a second step, we are also now requiring our customers to estimate their spacecraft first contact date and time, and let us know how many contact opportunities they will have within 4 hours of separating from our Sherpa OTV. By getting this information up front, we are identifying any customers that might have trouble making contact and we can assist with identification measures and additional support even before launch. 
  • Finally, we will follow up after deployment to find out when contact was made, and when they provided TLE information to the appropriate parties. By knowing exactly where every spacecraft is, we can help avoid recontact events and provide more security for future spacecraft.
LeoLabs uses a network of ground-based, phased array radars to produce high-resolution data on objects in low Earth orbit, creating a map for satellite operators. Image courtesy of LeoLabs

Spaceflight’s business is based on long-term relationships with our customers and partners, and also predicated on a regulated space for customer satellites to orbit safely. While our main job is getting our customers on orbit, we don’t forget them as soon as launch and deployment are over. Our new protocols will make it safer for everyone, and will ensure that we, and our customers, can continue to launch safe and effective missions for many years to come. 

LeoLabs data plot showing raw tracking measurements on the Transporter-1 deployed payloads. Image courtesy of LeoLabs
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