As predicted by Captain Kirk, space is indeed the final frontier. But imagine if Starfleet couldn’t launch the U.S.S. Enterprise because there was a traffic jam in Earth’s orbit causing congestion or, worse, gridlock.
Welcome to 2023. The growth of satellite constellations, mainly privatized, has exploded in recent years. It is nearly impossible to look up and not see a satellite with the naked eye any time after dusk. A team of Western University researchers is helping to track where these satellites are in Earth’s orbit.
Elon Musk’s Starlink alone currently boasts an array of nearly 5,000 internet satellites and even modest projections forecast the potential launch of hundreds of thousands more by companies, governments and other public and private entities in the coming years.
Western researchers are pioneering an inventive approach for satellite surveillance, leveraging existing cutting-edge technology initially designed for meteor observation.
“Satellites in the sky look like really, really slow meteors, so it is a natural extension of our meteor observation program,” said Peter Brown, Canada Research Chair in planetary science and member of Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration. “Our heavens are on the brink of becoming notably populated by satellite constellations and we need to know what’s up there, not only when but where.”
This initiative, a collaboration between Western and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), will adapt the technology used by the Western-led Global Meteor Network to efficiently monitor satellites over Canada using very low-cost cameras.
These cameras are unique as they are very sensitive. They monitor the entire sky and collect images tens of times per second, meaning they can track satellite constellations, rocket bodies and other debris in low earth orbit (LEO) while continuing to monitor meteors.
“After satellite constellations began to dominate the skies a few years ago, we developed algorithms to remove them from the meteor data. We simply turned the algorithms off and out came fully automated satellite detections,” said Denis Vida, a postdoctoral researcher at Western, who leads the Global Meteor Network, an initiative of Western Space. “We are now fine-tuning the tried-and-true algorithm to detect even more satellites and using a suite of machine learning techniques to detect even fainter satellites.”
Many newer satellite constellations, like those launched by Starlink, have autonomous navigation ability so their exact location is often poorly known, making them potentially troublesome from a space traffic management standpoint.
“We can determine exactly where each satellite is and see if it is stable or tumbling based on how it changes brightness,” said Brown, a physics and astronomy professor at Western. “We also get a good feel for how bright the satellites are and how much they might impact everyone’s view of the night sky over time.”
This video is a sped-up version of an entire night of camera imagery from one of the six cameras in the array showing satellites detected throughout the night. (Michael Mazur video)
The new initiative will demonstrate Western’s all-sky camera’s ability to successfully track satellites as seen from one location. Current tests show the cameras can detect and track LEO satellites with sizes above 40 cm (about the size of a large pizza). The existing sensors have been providing nightly tracks to DRDC since the project began in January 2023. Once prototype testing is complete later this year, Brown and his collaborators will deploy a series of enhanced cameras across the country to keep continuous watch over Canada’s skies.
“As more satellite constellations go into orbit, we need a fast way to record their location, brightness and state of health,” said Brown. “We believe this camera network, supported by Western’s decades of experience in observing meteors and the new technology by the Global Meteor Network, will be able to accomplish this task.”