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Satellite systems in the Earth observation, navigation and communication sector have become crucial for our modern society and help us foster sustainable development back on Earth. To name an example, businesses throughout industries rely on satellite navigation services for precise geolocational data to improve construction surveying, enable connected vehicles or to optimise traffic management. Earth observation data helps clean energy providers and cities to become greener – and its citizens to lead healthier lives. A study from the United Nation Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) from 2018 shows that almost 40 per cent of the 169 SDG targets directly benefit from using EGNSS and Copernicus services.(1)
However, sustainability and efficiency are not the first themes that come to mind when talking about space and satellite technology. In fact, in some ways, the whole notion of space-related activities seemingly contradicts these terms altogether, especially when looking at the resources that are needed to implement space transportation, satellite construction or rocket launches. Building and commissioning new satellites remains a lengthy process that requires a lot of resources, manpower and extensive financial budgets. In addition, satellites that are no longer operational are often in need of replacement. They then put a further strain on the environment by requiring more resources for the construction and launch of replacement satellites.
At the same time, the amount of orbital space available for new satellites and satellite systems is constantly becoming smaller, with an ever-increasing number of satellites being launched each year. Besides operational satellites, non-functional satellites are blocking otherwise usable orbits. Unfortunately, disposing of them is very complex and not always possible. Besides, malfunctioning satellites cannot be easily fixed. When satellites temporarily break down or fail entirely due to technical outages (e.g., caused by space debris), the ramifications include more than just economic losses for the organisations involved. The loss of data from these satellites impacts emergency response services, security agents and other institutions on Earth and leads to negative consequences, as those services depend on these satellites for their day-to-day operations.
Thus, it is essential to find ways to protect existing satellite infrastructures in the long run to ensure that our vital systems on Earth run smoothly. Making satellites sustainable and manufacturing them to last as long as possible should be a key point on the agenda. This entails setting up special security measures to prevent harmful hacker attacks by malicious agents. But it also means that new ways need to be found to protect the satellites themselves, as they are increasingly endangered by a growing amount of space debris in orbit.
OKAPI:Orbits, a German start-up, is tackling exactly this challenge with its Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) software, which is designed to mitigate the increasing risk of collisions and disruptions in orbit. This solution took second place in the INNOspace Masters ESA BIC Challenge 2019 and went on to receive developmental support in the ESA’s business incubation programme in Hesse, Germany. In October 2020, OKAPI:Orbit entered the market with its first collision prevention product for satellite operators. This young German company is making a key contribution with its AI-driven software solution and helps bring forward more efficient and sustainable space applications by protecting objects that are already in orbit from potential damage.
A different approach towards sustainability lies in finding a solution for restoring damaged or obsolete satellite modules in orbit instead of losing and replacing the entire satellite –called on-orbit servicing. The iBOSS project, which is supported by the German Space Agency at DLR, focuses on developing an intelligent modular system for such an on-orbit satellite servicing and assembly approach. Software tools make it possible to design and simulate new satellites that are able to achieve very short ready-to-launch times. The long-term goal is to have these tasks performed by service satellites, which would also increase efficiency and reduce the human resources needed.
Sustainability also entails the use of natural resources and energy in a way that does not harm the environment on Earth. Therefore, new and innovative ways of reducing stress on the environment need to be found. This could be achieved either by reducing the need for new satellites by exploiting synergies and cooperating with existing solutions or by making sure that new satellites are manufactured and launched with consideration for sustainability and ecological aspects throughout the supply chain.
For this year’s competition, INNOspace Masters is launching an open call for new ideas and solutions that address these problems. These could be new technical solutions for satellites, such as using lighter materials, delivering higher communication security through quantum encryption, exploring new energy storage systems or employing artificial intelligence for data evaluation in satellites.
Increasing efficiencies throughout the product life-cycle is equally important for the development of the space sector and the New Space economy on Earth. However, achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort and expense is a difficult task to achieve in the field of space. Numerous test launches are necessary, thousands of hours of research and countless pilot projects are inadvertently part of advancing the space industry. And even though every actor would like to avoid wrong turns and dead-ends, trial and error are a natural part of research and development.
Nevertheless, as has been shown by past winners of the INNOspace Masters, there are ways to increase efficiencies even in this field. This could be done by pushing and developing cost-effective access to space know-how and activities for businesses and industry. Small satellite launchers are one example of how this is already successfully executed, as they offer low-cost access to space for many small-scale satellite projects by commercial companies. But there are many more ways in which efficient solutions for space can be executed, such as optimising the production processes of space systems, accelerating the transfer of large amounts of data from satellites to the ground or using machine intelligence for processing satellite data.
Innovations and ideas at any stage of development are welcome. Whether entrants wish to submit applied research or a market-ready product or service, the INNOspace Masters partners are sure to offer the right challenge and assistance to the eventual winners. Potential participants from the fields of research and industry are invited to submit their proposal for the INNOspace Masters 2021/2022 by 4 February 2022.
To find out more about this year’s challenges, participate in the interactive webinars offered by the partners of the competition from 6 December to 16 December 2021.
(1) Joint report with the EU Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA, formerly GSA): “European Global Navigation Satellite System and Copernicus: Supporting the Sustainable Development Goals. Building Blocks towards the 2030 Agenda.” 2019. https://www.unoosa.org/res/oosadoc/data/documents/2018/stspace/stspace71_0_html/st_space_71E.pdf