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Everybody’s heard the term “space junk.” You’re probably aware there’s a bunch of it and that it’s a risk to satellites. The Space Force tracks tens of thousands of pieces of debris every day, but that’s only the big stuff. There are an estimated 100 million pieces of smaller bits — ten centimeters or less — that we can’t see from Earth with current technology. But just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous, Alexis Truitt, program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, told Federal News Network Deputy Director Jared Serbu on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
Alexis Truitt: Right now, there’s less than 1% of debris that could cause mission ending damage that is currently tracked. These pieces of debris are traveling very fast, over 22,000 miles per hour. So collisions are more like explosions rather than breakups. And if you think about a one centimeter object colliding with the satellite, the amount of energy that’s produced in that collision is the equivalent of a hand grenade going off. Small debris, millimeter sized debris can cause significant damage, too. So even a 10 millimeter piece of debris colliding with a CubeSat. That’s the equivalent of a motorcycle colliding with that CubeSat, going 60 miles per hour. So these can be small pieces of debris can cause significant damage, especially depending on where they’re colliding. They could be hitting a science instrument, a fuel tank or solar array panel, and completely impairing what the mission is for that satellite.
Jared Serbu: Is there a lot of precedent for these collisions actually happening? I mean, I’m trying to get a sense of how theoretical this problem is, or is it more in the realm of low probability, very high consequence event?
Alexis Truitt: That’s a good question. So the debris population has been increasing. And there are two events that cause significant population increases historically. So there was a cosmos iridium collision, so a collision between two communication satellites. And then there was a Chinese ASAT demonstration, where they actually launched from the ground a missile to destroy one of their defunct satellites between those two events, they have increased the population of debris over 40%. And as a result, the satellite owners and operators continue to get frequent alerts as to potential collisions with their satellites. And it’s hard. It’s hard not knowing what type of debris, the size of the debris, the material, the speed of that debris, it’s hard to do an accurate risk assessment for the potential damage to your satellite. So a satellite owner or operator might make a different decision if they knew that piece of debris that was colliding with them was a piece of metal versus a piece of insulation material or Styrofoam. And especially if that satellite has a limited amount of fuel or maneuverability, it could really make a difference in the decision that’s made.
Jared Serbu: Yeah, that leads me to what I was gonna ask you next, which is once you know, if SINTRA achieves its goal, and you’re now able to track these 100 million pieces out there, what operators actually do with that information? Or do governments do with that information?
Alexis Truitt: Sure. So it’s going to help improve the risk assessment. If we can improve the accuracy at which we’re detecting tracking and characterizing debris, especially since the space environment is so dynamic, we really need a more persistent way to monitor the debris population, because a piece of debris that we’re tracking right now, the overall evolution of that orbit over time because of the dynamic environment may change. And so we’re going to need some persistence, that’s going to improve on the accuracy of the potential collision conjunctions that are called conjunctions, the reports that we provide to satellite owners that’ll improve the accuracy and help inform the decisions that they’re making.
Jared Serbu: So tell us a bit about the actual SINTRA program. When do you think you’ll potentially have something up and running and then tell us a little bit about some of what you heard from proposers at your recent proposers’ day?
Alexis Truitt: Sure, so we held a proposers’ day, on Aug. 10. We held it in the D.C. area. During that time we announced our plans for the SINTRA program. We are planning for a 48 month program, multi-phase program that aims to detect, track and characterize debris and persistently monitor the debris population. This is such a hard problem that we believe it’s going to be a multi-disciplinary endeavor. We saw a variety of proposed solutions and they range from improving our current optical and radar capabilities from the ground. Our Space Surveillance Network does an incredible job of detecting and tracking objects that are greater than 10 centimeters in size. Some proposers are proposing novel and innovative ways to look at that data in a new way. There are other proposed solutions that involve computational approaches. So trying to find objects and data that haven’t been detected previously using new algorithms to detect objects that are very dim in the data. And we call those low signal to noise. And then there are some new approaches with quantum detectors, new technology, quantum detectors, phased array antennas, and even plasma probes, measuring the plasma density around objects, and so there’s such a wide variety of solutions, that there’s much potential and seeing where SINTRA could go.
Jared Serbu: And why did IARPA decide now is the time to actually give this a shot? Were you able to see technologies emerging in the marketplace that led you to believe this is actually now doable?
Alexis Truitt: Yeah, there were two components. One, new technology, new research in the fields of debris detection and tracking the advances with computational algorithms and development of new radar and optical sensors, even lidar and quantum sensors. And then also the priority that’s being recognized across government agencies and industry and academia as to the need for a solution to the debris problem. So most recently, the White House released an orbital debris research and development plan in 2021, that emphasize the need for government agencies to coordinate on orbital debris research. And they followed up with a research implementation plan in 2022. So the combination of the advances in technology and the recognized need for a solution is, are part of the reasons why IARPA decided to pursue this program.
Jared Serbu: And if this pans out, and you end up with a viable program, or a viable family of technologies that can actually meet your objectives. Where does it transition to? I assume IARPA doesn’t run it in perpetuity.
Alexis Truitt: That’s true, we don’t have an operational mission. We’re hoping to push the envelope in a field of research where it’s greatly needed. So we typically invest in high risk, high payoff research that couldn’t be supported otherwise, or it might be too far ahead on the horizon. And we could have multiple transition partners. And that’s what we look forward to the most. And so traditionally, IARPA supports transition to the Department of Defense in the intelligence community. But debris is a worldwide issue. And we, we’re working closely with all aspects of the orbital debris community.
Jared Serbu: Just curious. I mean, it’s easy to see why this this debris field problem would be an issue for the intelligence community. But it’s a problem for a lot of other operators, as well. How did this become an IARPA mission? How did you end up with the task of solving this problem?
Alexis Truitt: Sure. So personally, my research, my dissertation research focused on the detection and tracking of orbital debris. Having worked in the DoD, IC, in the intelligence community, and NASA as well, I’ve, I saw throughout my career, where orbital debris plays a significant, is a significant risk to all space missions. And it was just very timely with the White House orbital debris R&D plan. And the recognized need for a solution. I think that the stars aligned here that allowed me to to transition to IARPA and to pursue this program.
Jared Serbu: You mentioned that this is going to be a 48 month program, is the idea that at the end of that 48 months, the hope is to have something that you know, could go into operation or what happens at the end of that 48 months, what’s the goal at the end of that 48 months?
Alexis Truitt: So during that 48 months, we’re going to be advancing research in the field that’s still very early in its stages. So we hope to develop that research to a position where it could be demonstrated. And at that point, we would look to transition to multiple transition partners with their own operational needs and help support that transition as much as we can.