Space quest: How orbital data might improve life on Earth

Amazon and Axiom want to exploit space for human gain but danger from space junk lurks above Earth’s atmosphere

“I spent my whole career launching satellites and rockets and, much as I hate to admit it, the important stuff is not those satellites nor those rockets, it’s the data that they provide.”

Clint Crosier is sitting opposite me, chatting amiably. He’s a civilian now, but still looks trim enough to fit into the dark blue uniform of the US air force, in which he was previously a two-star general, and a senior officer in the US space force. He’s a literal rocket man, having been responsible for launching military satellites.

Crosier now works with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing services arm of the retail and tech giant. Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos is well known for his own obsession with space and launching both people and cargo into orbit on his Blue Origin rockets. Crosier, though, is more interested in what comes down rather than what goes up.

“If you look at the future, every expert will tell you there will be five to 10 times more satellites in orbit in the next 10 years,” Crosier says. “Those satellites are going to be more and more capable and will be sending down more and more data. So much data that we literally are in a position where we don’t know how to handle it all.

READ MORE

“Well, AWS knows how to handle data, so it was a light-bulb moment for me when I realised that we could help space organisations around the world manage all this data so that we can use it to make life better here on Earth.”

Crosier is fond of the phrase “Make Earth a better place, from space” and he’s not simply talking about mercantile interests, although Amazon is certainly a company that knows how to make money from its various activities.

“I met with a company at our conference here [we are chatting on the sidelines of AWS’s massive annual conference in Las Vegas] called Gatehouse Maritime. They’re currently using satellite data to track shipping movements across the world to predict, to the minute, when ships will pull into port, when all the cargo will be offloaded, when the ship will vacate and so on.

“As part of that mission, they were able to ingest satellite data that global wildlife management companies have used to identify the migration of endangered whales. And so they added to their platform the ability to monitor endangered whales, and now they’ve got a real-time mission to notify port authorities when the whales are migrating into the shipping lanes. That’s an amazing use of space that we never would have thought of before.”

Crosier cites other beneficial uses of space-sourced data, such as the ability to track land use in Africa for food crops, predicting and managing soil concentrations, potential crop yields and insect infestations. Or there’s the ability to more accurately track and predict the paths of hurricanes crossing the Gulf of Mexico, adding life-saving hours on to evacuation and shelter warnings, or the Australian company which claims that it can detect the ignition of a wildfire within three minutes of the first flame taking hold.

Space junk

There’s a danger, though. All those extra satellites will be jostling for space in an Earth orbit space that has already becoming crowded and is in danger of becoming overcrowded. There are already serious issues with debris and “space trash” endangering other satellites and even manned missions on orbit (a tiny piece of dust, moving at orbital speeds, can severely damage a satellite or spacecraft with its immense kinetic energy).

Aside from the safety issues, there are also problems for the visibility of ground-based astronomical telescopes, whose users are raising merry hell over the proliferation of satellites, especially the microsatellites being launched by the likes of Elon Musk’s Starlink for satellite internet services.

One person who has experienced the problems of space junk up close is Peggy Whitson, a former Nasa chief of the astronaut office (meaning she was the agency’s most senior spacefarer) and a two-time commander of the International Space Station (ISS). Dr Whitson is now working with Axiom, a private company – and a customer for Crosier’s space data-wrangling AWS products – which intends to launch the first privately-operated space station in Earth orbit by 2025.

“The ISS has had to do what we call orbital debris manoeuvres on several occasions, more so in the past few years. The debris fields in our area have increased and it requires manoeuvring to get around them, to ensure that we minimise the risk of a catastrophic hit on the space station,” Dr Whitson told The Irish Times.

“It’s a very real problem, and there are models that suggest that as soon as 2050, if we don’t change how we are doing business, it’ll be hard to operate in low Earth orbit.”

There seems to be a direct reflection in how we’ve managed space travel thus far with how we’ve lived our lives on Earth – trash the gaff and hope someone else clears up. That may have just about been tenable when only the US and the Soviet Union were lofting rockets and satellites into orbit, but now there are hundreds of space-hungry private companies looking to climb to the stars.

Crosier acknowledges the problem. “We need to be careful. There’s no question about that. It’s a good thing that we’re proliferating space capabilities for the good of mankind. But we have to pay attention to the congestion, the potential congestion that comes along the way. The good news is there are technical solutions that are available. We just haven’t had to apply them before.”

One that Crosier notes is Leo Labs, which runs regular diagnostics on the debris and space junk in orbit, and warns satellite operators that they may need to move their spacecraft out of the way of an imminent collision.

“When told, the company would say: ‘Great, thanks for telling us – should we manoeuvre up down left or right?’ And Leo labs would say: ‘Well, it takes us eight hours to do a data run. So if you want us to run for perturbations, it’ll take us about 32 hours.’

“Now, they’re the best in the world at what they can do, but they were limited on the time it takes to do those runs. They moved all that to the AWS cloud and, with the supercomputer speed that we can supply, Leo Labs can now run that prediction in 10 seconds – during the phone call to the satellite operator.”

There’s a philosophical question remaining, though. With the turning over of operations in low Earth orbit to private operators – and that’s Nasa’s avowed intention, to allow it to concentrate on targets further afield, such as returning to the moon and eventually going to Mars – are we in danger of losing something; a key sense of romance and of humanity about space exploration? If what was once done in peace for all mankind becomes for profit, have we ruined space for ourselves?

“I’ll address it this way. Whether the first person to step a foot on Mars is a Nasa astronaut or a Jaxa [the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] astronaut or a private astronaut funded by a private company, I don’t think that’s going to reduce the level of inspiration that will provide the world.

“What it has allowed us to do is that Nasa can open contracts to the likes of Axiom Space, which my company supports, to do a replacement module for the International Space Station. And Axiom can do it cheaper and faster than Nasa could. And while Axiom is doing that, Nasa can go back to the Moon and on to Mars.

“So we’ve created a significant increase in capacity. And with more capacity we’ve been able to accomplish more things. And impact more and more missions and more and more people’s lives. And so I think that’s a good thing overall.”