3 Nov 2021

Russian Space Surveillance System chief designer Goryuchkin: Space debris to become critical problem in next 10 years

Vitaly Goryuchkin

Vitaly Goryuchkin
Photo: Samarin / MAK Vympel

Chief designer of the Russian Space Surveillance System Vitaly Goryuchkin has given an interview to Interfax correspondent Artyom Rukavov in which he discusses the modernization of the Space Surveillance System, the problem of space debris and plans to establish am international space surveillance center.

Question: What does the Space Surveillance System look like now?

Answer: The Space Surveillance System is a distributed information system consisting of a command post, a communication system and surveillance means, such as radars, optical means of both the Space Surveillance System itself and functions drawn from other systems, for example the ballistic missile early warning system. The system is capable of processing information from optical means drawn from other systems, and from and commercial organizations.

The main catalogue of the Space Surveillance System is based on this information. The catalogue stores information about the all near-Earth space objects, about the events, such a maneuvers, destruction, deorbiting, dangerous approaches, as well as anticipated events. All this information is used in the interests of relevant consumers.

Q.: How effective is the Russian Space Surveillance System?

A.: The effectiveness of the Russian Space Surveillance System is assessed in terms of a large number of parameters, such as the fullness of control, accuracy and trustworthiness of information. Today, we are solving all our tasks at the level that is demanded from us.

Q.: What are the plans regarding the system’s modernization and development?

A.: Apart from introducing new surveillance means, it is expected to modernize all current ones, meaning that we are improving both surveillance means and software – paring them with the command post. In particular, we are expanding the number of tasks they solve and types of information that they obtain. Such work is done continuously for all means of the Space Surveillance System.

Q.: In general, what is the role of the Okno facility in the Space Surveillance System?

A.: The Okno system in Tajikistan plays an important role, in particular because it is outside of Russia, which expands the area of space surveillance.

Okno system in Tajikistan

Okno system in Tajikistan
Photo: Samarin / MAK Vympel

Q.: Was its protection enhanced following the escalation of the situation in Afghanistan?

A.: Definitely.

Q.: The first of four space surveillance facilities that are expected to be created in Russia began working in Altai Territory in 2016. What are the preliminary results of this system?

A.: The optoelectronic facility that began working is one of the means of the Space Surveillance system. The Altai system is working successfully and contributing to the catalogue as much as Okno does or even more in the field of non-coordinate measurements. It is expected that similar facilities will be deployed in Crimea, Buryatia and Primorye Territory.

Q.: When is the new space surveillance facility expected to be deployed in Crimea?

A.: The installation of an optoelectronic system is nearing completion in Crimea, and it is supposed to be put on duty next year. Deployment of a new optoelectronic station with a larger telescope is due to happen in the same area in the near future.

Q.: What will be its target orbits?

A.: The main mission of these telescopes is to control high-orbit space objects. The systems also have telescopes capable of gathering information about small-sized objects in low orbits.

Q.: Are any means of monitoring space objects from outer space being developed?

A.: A separate line of the development of the Space Surveillance System is of course the development of surveillance means. Those should be the means that ensure higher accuracy of collected information, as we must learn to control smaller objects. They are harder to control. Our goal is to know where it is, where it could go and so on. There is need for some methods to deploy surveillance instruments outside Russia, say, agreements with friendly countries. A way out is the development of space-based space surveillance means.

In general, the global trend is to create an orbit group for various purposes. Countries that cannot afford having an Earth-based space surveillance system because of their small territories expect to deploy space surveillance means in outer space. We have such plans, and this kind of system is being developed. But a space-based network is extremely complex and expensive.

Q.: Are there any plans to deploy Russian space surveillance facilities in foreign countries?

A.: International contract work is underway, which provides for signing intergovernmental agreements on obtaining information from other systems in foreign countries.

Q.: What is this international contract work about?

A.: Our space surveillance system is currently in rather complicated conditions but we try to keep up with the pace and rebuild and develop its elements to make them ready for new challenges of tomorrow. This is a very complicated task. In fact, there are two full-scale space surveillance systems at the national level that are dealing with a lot of tasks and have a wide range of various information means. They are in the United States and Russia.

The development of the surveillance system must certainly be intensive. Technical and scientific tasks must be solved and contractual, organizational and diplomatic means must be used among others. For us the most topical task is to try to deploy the surveillance system's means outside of Russia and to give information from the surveillance system to as many consumers of information as possible.

The issue of observing contractual obligations is now a very acute problem at the UN level, since the rules governing the use of space are not very clear. In this respect the U.S. is trying to go its own way, to take everything in its hands, not to make mutual equal agreements and to dictate its conditions. Russia has been proposing in the UN to create an international site for gathering and exchanging information about space objects and events.

In Russia, we are in favor of creating an interagency center for covering space situation that would consolidate information and give it to consumers in Russia and foreign countries.

Q.: What would such a center do?

A.: We believe that we have much information about near-Earth space and this information should be available, meaning that it shouldn't be closed or classified but on the contrary be open. We should show that we have this information, that we see and surveil space, and that operators and organizations have certain access to this information along with information obtained from the U.S. This will result in there being several sources, the objectivity of coverage and trustworthiness of information will be enhanced, and the attention to our system on the international level, as well as inside the country, will grow, while the awareness of the importance and value of this information needed for the system's development will increase. We are working together with Roscosmos towards this end.

Q.: Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin proposed to create a unified international space debris monitoring system. What is your attitude to the idea of obliging satellite producers to deorbit them after their life ends?

A.: Today there is a requirement for satellite producers to deorbit them. It is possible to deorbit them from low orbits so that they burn in dense atmospheric layers. As for the geostationary orbit, they are elevated to higher disposal orbits. They can stay there for quite a long time without bothering anyone. There is a requirement to dispose of the vehicles, but it’s another matter when not everyone fulfills this task in good faith; also, emergency situations can arise where the vehicles lose control.

Okno system in Tajikistan

Okno system in Tajikistan
Photo: Samarin / MAK Vympel

Q.: In your opinion, in how many years will the space debris problem become critical?

A.: There are suggestions that is has already become critical. Specialists say the so-called Kessler Syndrome [a hypothetical development of the situation in which pollution of the low Earth orbit with space debris will result in outer space becoming totally unfit for exploration] where a chain reaction starts, has begun. This is one of the hypothesis but considering the current rates of development and the number of satellites deployed, I believe there is a high probability that the situation will be close to critical or even critical in ten years, unless we devise new methods to control and avert such situations. One of the tasks of the surveillance system is trustworthy and highly accurate tracking of the enormous number of small objects so that we are capable of avoiding damage as a result of collisions with the debris of large space vehicles, as well as assisting launches in order to control the compliance of countries with contract obligations to minimize the number of launched elements that eventually become space debris. Of course, this a global problem. In this regard, it should be solved all together.

There are plenty of ideas as to how to clean up debris in outer space, but they are mostly fictional.

Q.: What surveillance means are the main ones for detecting and tracking space debris?

A.: The space debris problem is particularly acute for low orbits of no more than 3,500 kilometers. The collision of Iridium 33 and Cosmos-2251 satellites in 2009 brought more than 600 fragments of space debris. Tests of U.S. and Chinese anti-satellite weapons have made the situation worse. The destruction of the Fengyun satellite by a Chinese anti-satellite missile produced over 2,300 fragments of space debris, which could stay dozens and hundreds years in orbits posing a real threat to operating space vehicles.

Low-orbit space objects are mostly monitored by radar stations. Optical systems do not fully support independent monitoring of low-orbit space objects. But I have to say that the problem is extremely pressing in high orbits, especially the geostationary orbit.

Small objects are a big problem for the surveillance system as well. There is a preliminary estimate of the number [of small objects] depending on their size: there are more than 100,000 space objects larger than five centimeters and over one million space objects with a size of about one centimeter.

The radars that we have - surveillance system radars, missile attack warning radars, including new Voronezh-type prefabricated radar stations - are successfully monitoring fairly large objects. However, there is need for powerful specialized radars focusing on surveillance of small-sized space objects.

Q.: How is this all assessed?

A.: There are means that assess the level of space pollution, such as special radars that are just targeted into a narrow area and are assessing the intensity of passage of the monitored objects through the radar zone.

Q.: To what extent does the reaction of satellite groups such as Starlink and OneWeb increase the risk of 'polluting' Earth orbits?

A.: This can create and has already created a big problem. Starlink is a very large, simply unprecedentedly enormous group. If the low-orbit group had been about 4,000-5,000 operational vehicles before 2020, including on geostationary orbits, then SpaceX put over 1,300 vehicles into orbit in 2020-2021 and plans to put 12,000 vehicles into low orbits with the possibility of increasing [the group] up to 40,000 vehicles. So, this is an unparalleled group. Technically, they provide broadband Internet access from any point on the Earth, but they can solve other tasks as well, for example ensure operational communication in any part [of the world] and solve tasks in the interests of consumers, including military ones.

The enlargement of the Starlink group dramatically increases the number of low-orbit spacecraft, that is, the situation is fairly acute already. And an enlargement of the group will proportionately increase the probability of collisions.

If there are several collisions, each of which result on several thousand objects, this could lead to irreversible consequences.

We also need to bear in mind that the service life of this spacecraft is five years. Accordingly, 2,400 of the 12,000 spacecraft need to be removed from orbit every year to burn up in the dense atmosphere, and the same number of spacecraft need to be launched to take the place of decommissioned ones. All these things generate new launch fragments, a lot of active orbital traffic, that is, the situation will be quite tense and difficult, and it will be fairly difficult to control.

Okno system in Tajikistan

Okno system in Tajikistan
Photo: Samarin / MAK Vympel

Q.: What are the possible solutions to this problem?

A.: More attention to the group of space vehicles is not something we will find ourselves with sometime later, this is a long-term upward trend that constantly involves new players.

The technologies of mass serial vehicles and cluster launches are mastered. This all simplifies launching the payload into space and makes it cheaper. Many states, companies and organizations are already planning to deploy their large groups of vehicles. This could cause a problem amid insufficient regulation of the orbital motion. Good regulation requires both a foundation for technical control and a legal framework, which currently also requires considerable development and work at the international level.

Q.: Is there any monitoring of U.S. military satellites in low-Earth orbit? Western media report that hardware for tracking launches of hypersonic missiles which will later be installed on satellites on the low-Earth orbit is sent to the International Space Station.

A.: We are closely monitoring all space vehicles, including U.S. ones. Naturally, the Russian Defense Ministry pays more attention to foreign vehicles that have signs of military and dual-purpose ones.

Yes, the Americans are developing their space warning systems that are capable of detecting both ballistic and hypersonic vehicles. The group should consist of up to 28 space vehicles equipped with information transmission means. Some of the vehicles are a transport bus that ensure the possibility of immediate reception of information from any space vehicle and its transmission to any consumer in any part of the world. This project shows approaches to the development of space infrastructure that ensure its reliability, continuity and global reach. Engaging such companies as SpaceX and L3Harris in the development of space systems will make it possible to swiftly and effectively deploy the group.

We are now witnessing a technological revolution in space exploration which has already led to a drastic change in the use of near-Earth space by the international community and the skyrocketed number of space objects and space debris in low- and high-Earth orbits. The Russian Space Surveillance System is one of the key elements of providing objective information about the whole space group.

Rapid development of technologies is ongoing and it is very hard to make forecasts for a fairly long time interval, so we have to constantly seek ways of developing the Russian Space Surveillance System.