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Kayhan and the future of space traffic management

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Space Traffic management
PUBLISHED
October 5, 2023
BY
Chad Anderson

Kayhan recently announced an oversubscribed funding round and unveiled Pathfinder 3.0, the world’s first platform for autonomous space traffic coordination. The ability for satellite operators to effectively share data, coordinate actions, and avoid a broad range of operational threats is game changing and we are honored that Kayhan trusted us to lead their round alongside Eve Atlas.

Protecting critical infrastructure

Space-based technologies are the building blocks of innovation on Earth. GPS, Geospatial Intelligence, and Satellite Communications are the “invisible backbone” of the world’s largest industries and amid these challenging economic times, one thing remains certain: space-based technologies are playing an increasingly vital role in our economy, and will continue to transform the world’s largest industries for decades to come.

Space-based assets are essential for our economic stability and national security, and governments around the world are prioritizing their protection:

As Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute and former Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, told me in The Space Economy, “We’re dependent upon space, both militarily and economically, as much as, if not more than, Great Britain was dependent on the ocean in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.”

A growing challenge

The challenge is that the number of objects in LEO is growing rapidly. For the first 60 years of the space age, the number of satellites in orbit increased at a slow and steady pace. In 2019, there were 800 functional satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). Today there are over 5,000 and pretty soon we’re going to be up in the tens-of-thousands. And this is not an anomaly. If companies like SpaceX and Amazon have their way, an estimated 100,000 satellites will launch into Earth’s orbit in this decade. While this number alone is striking, when compared to the 3,800 satellites launched during the previous decade, it becomes extraordinary.

Additionally, there are now more than 22,000 large-sized space debris objects which are trackable from Earth, along with millions of estimated smaller debris fragments, which are currently unable to be tracked. This debris can collide with active satellites and cause serious damage or malfunction. Moreover, the intermingling of assets from various nations in orbit elevates geopolitical risk, as a collision or malfunction could spark tensions between countries, particularly when national security is at stake.

The time-sequence below, provided by Space Capital portfolio company LeoLabs, starts from the beginning of the space age (1957) and includes data from the first few months of 2023. The left panel depicts the number of intact objects (such as operational payloads, non-operational payloads, and rocket bodies) deposited at each altitude annually. The panel on the right depicts the accumulation of mass for each of these three object categories over time.

Low Earth Orbit population over time (objects still in orbit). Credit: LeoLabs

Despite the exponential increase in the number of operational payloads, their total mass is still less than the accumulated mass of intact derelicts; these large derelicts are likely to be a catalyst for future debris-generating events. Rocket bodies and non-operational payloads abandoned early in the space age at certain orbits, or “clusters”, are persistent and account for most of the derelict mass in LEO.

Between January 2022 and March 2023, there have been over half of a million high-percentage conjunctions in LEO and the probability of collision is currently the highest around 500–800 km altitude range; very desirable orbits. For reference, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites operate at 550 km and Amazon’s Kuiper satellites will operate between 590–630 km. In addition, there are many potentially mission-degrading collision events between operational payloads and debris too small to be tracked currently. Every time a collision or explosion occurs in LEO, especially at higher altitudes, the harmful results are additive because the debris created from the collision is not cleared from orbit for decades, even centuries (read more: Kessler effect).

The potential for collisions not only endangers costly equipment but also poses a threat to essential services that global industries have come to rely on.

A growing opportunity

In our Space Investment Quarterly reports, we have consistently highlighted the growth potential of the Logistics sector within Emerging Industries, which is largely driven by the burgeoning demand for space situational awareness (SSA) data and space traffic management (STM) solutions — ie. knowing where things are and coordinating safe operations.

Kayhan’s scalable software solution will complement our investment in LeoLabs, given the way these two approach SSA and collision avoidance. LeoLabs provides the world’s leading orbit tracking and conjunction alerts and Kayhan picks up where Leolabs leaves off. STM has been talked about a lot, but Kayhan has developed a market-leading space traffic coordination solution and has generated significant early traction with large government and enterprise customers, including leading satellite operators.

To understand the overall potential of this growing market, it has been helpful to leverage our framework from The GPS Playbook. Data providers like LeoLabs own and operate radar infrastructure, which provides essential SSA data. AWS is playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of orbital data for mass adoption, which is unlocking unique applications, like Kayhan.

Logistics industry. Credit: Space Capital

As an Application, Kayhan is delivering next-generation automation and coordinated satellite collision avoidance solutions for STM. Kayhan’s flagship Pathfinder STM solution is already relied on today by dozens of operators navigating hundreds of dynamic missions in congested space. With this latest funding round Kayhan is gearing up to launch Pathfinder 3.0, which provides major new features that combine conjunction risk assessment, optimized collision avoidance maneuver planning, and for the first time, the ability to autonomously pre-coordinate maneuver responsibility and event mitigation status at the machine-to-machine level using the Space Safety Coalition’s Best Practices for the Sustainability of Space Operations. Pathfinder 3.0 is the first commercially available software platform that incorporates the Space System Command’s Rules of the Road as optional presets for establishing maneuver responsibility, as well as other best practices and recommendations, into a mature SaaS application that owner-operators can deploy and automate in their day-to-day satellite operations.

Siamak Hesar, Kayhan co-founder and CEO, says that “Pathfinder 3.0 is a game-changer for space traffic management, as it provides a structured protocol for operators to coordinate maneuver responsibility at the machine level, and then automate maneuverability and collision avoidance at scale using an established rules-based framework.”

Kayhan’s Pathfinder collision avoidance platform. Credit: Kayhan Space

Operators managing increasingly complex constellations in congested orbits can sign up for Kayhan’s tiered Pathfinder offerings, including the free Pathfinder Essentials service and the subscription-based Pathfinder Pro, to seamlessly assess fleet status and threats, and automatically implement real-time collision avoidance measures. A Pathfinder 3.0 beta release will be available this fall, with its new space traffic auto-coordination features available to all satellite operators free of charge in the Pathfinder Essentials tier.

Araz Feyzi, co-founder and CTO, said “Pathfinder 3.0 is not just an incremental improvement over what we have today — it fundamentally changes how operators coordinate their actions in orbit.”

At Space Capital, we couldn’t be more excited to support Kayhan as we build out a full stack solution to space Logistics. Despite market headwinds affecting the Space Economy, we’ve never been more bullish about its future as breakthrough technologies and exceptional teams demonstrate that the pace of innovation is only accelerating.

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