Launch Support for Planet SkySats

As any experienced satellite owner-operator knows, the first hours and days following a satellite launch can often be the most precarious. It can be challenging to locate and establish initial communications with your spacecraft in a timely fashion, especially on rideshare missions where there may be multiple other operator payloads released in close proximity to your own. As rideshare missions continue to add more payloads and launch more frequently, operators will require additional resources for getting crucial mission support immediately after their launch.

LeoLabs is answering this call with a new capability to support the Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP) of missions. Currently in advanced beta testing, this first-of-its-kind commercial service will provide payload tracking and identification support starting immediately after on-orbit deployment, filling the crucial time gap between launch and when the objects are added to the public catalog, which can often take days or weeks for complex missions. Satellite operators can now have access to orbital location information on their payloads within the first few hours of deployment, so they can quickly and reliably establish communications and begin their mission operations.

LeoLabs recently supported a collaborative effort with our friends at Planet to provide this capability for its launch of three new SkySats on a SpaceX Falcon 9 mission that took place on June 13, 2020. For this mission, SpaceX released the three Planet SkySats first in a planned sequence several minutes before releasing its own 58 Starlink satellites that were also on board.

With prior knowledge of the deployment order and spacing, LeoLabs was able to easily detect and identify the SkySats separately from the other payloads, after the first radar pass at Kiwi Space Radar occurring just two hours after launch. The second radar pass, 20 hours later, provided further refinement to the data.

The data plot above was generated with LeoLabs’ internal launch tracking tools. Here, our observation data and association algorithms painted a clear picture of the deployed payloads. From left to right, we see the three Planet SkySats which were deployed 30 seconds apart from one another, followed by the cluster of 58 SpaceX Starlink satellites deployed together.

We then used our data to generate fitted TLEs for each SkySat. Simultaneously, Planet was able to successfully establish communications with each SkySat and generate their own GPS-derived TLEs. A comparison of LeoLabs TLEs vs. Planet TLEs, both generated independently just hours after the launch, showed strong agreement to within less than a kilometer.

This exercise shows the value of having fast, accurate, independent tracking support during LEOP for new missions. In cases where operators must address unexpected anomalies or rapidly troubleshoot communications issues, having quick-turnaround assistance from a dedicated commercial sensor network becomes an invaluable resource to enable mission continuity.

LeoLabs is now offering its Launch and Early Orbit support service commercially to all satellite operators, with an emphasis on large rideshare missions. The service will focus on providing rapid location and identification support to satellite operators in the first three to five days of the mission following payload deployment.

Location — LeoLabs collects range, doppler, and radar cross-section (RCS) measurements for all detected objects. RCS data provides a good indication of the object’s size, and helps differentiate large and small payloads that may be adjacent to one another. We associate objects from one radar pass to the next and group the measurements accordingly, fitting TLEs or state vectors using our initial orbit determination (IOD) algorithms. TLEs are delivered directly to the operator as soon as they are available, typically within 90 minutes of each radar pass.

Identification — LeoLabs can help sort out which payloads are which after deployment on rideshare missions. By utilizing the planned deployment sequence and timing from the launch provider, coupled with our observation data that includes relative spacing in between payloads and RCS data, we work with operators to provide a full “lay of the land” and deliver measurements and TLEs on the payloads we believe are theirs. If there is any ambiguity, we will also provide TLEs on multiple surrounding objects and clusters. The final identification is confirmed when an operator successfully communicates with its satellite.

To learn more about the LeoLabs Launch and Early Orbit service for your next mission, contact us at https://www.leolabs.space/contact/.

Tracking space debris in Low Earth Orbit. https://leolabs.space