HEO Robotics identifies previously unknown ‘Object K’ as space debris

This week HEO Robotics released a White Paper identifying a previously unidentified object known only to the western world as ‘2021-033K’ or ‘Object K’ as space debris, likely a half of a payload fairing of a Long March 6 rocket.

"At HEO Robotics, we've implemented a "no UFO" policy, as it's so critical to identify space objects to maintain space and Earth safety" says HEO Robotics co-founder and CEO, Dr William Crowe.

Orbital debris is a growing risk for the continuity of space-based services and for physical space assets. The European Space Agency estimates that there are over 29,000 pieces of space junk larger that 10cm across. Recent incidents of debris falling back to Earth and causing the crew of the International Space Station to shelter in evacuation vehicles have increased public awareness of the potential challenges posed by debris. But the problem of space debris is complicated further by a lack of transparency as to what is, and isn’t debris.

The United States’ Space Surveillance Network provides data to a service called SpaceTrack, which is used by international satellite owners/operators, academia and other entities to plan missions and monitor conjunction risk. SpaceTrack has listed approximately 343 objects in low earth orbit (LEO) that remain unidentified.

“Understanding where these objects came from and characterising their attributes is critical. If they are debris, identification can determine whether they pose a threat to the space environment, how the creation of similar types of debris can be mitigated in future, and offer a path forward for debris removal and management,” says Dr Annie Handmer, Senior Manager Policy and Innovation at HEO Robotics. “If they are functioning satellites, they can be correctly identified and attributed to their launching state, which is an important step under international law.” Besides predicting where the object might land, identification can also confirm which nation is responsible if any damage is caused by falling or in-orbit debris.

On the basis of multiple visual inspections over the past year, open source research, and analysis including 3D modeling, HEO Robotics has identified Object K as being debris, and has suggested that its dimensions and attributes indicate that it is likely to be a payload fairing of the Long March 6 rocket body launched in April 2021.  

“The first thing we aimed to do was to determine whether Object 2021-033K was an additional, unexpected satellite or whether it was debris. Our first imaging mission in 2021 showed that it was clearly a debris object as it had none of the elements that an active satellite would need - solar panels, modules and so on. Once we had established this, we started to narrow down what kind of debris object it could be,” says HEO Robotics Research Engineer Sam Kirkwood.

HEO Robotics will continue to inspect Object K using spectral analysis and machine learning techniques  to learn more about how the creation of similar types of debris can be mitigated in future.

The company has reached out to the body responsible for maintaining a database of space objects, the United States’ Space Force 18th Space Squadron, to recommend that the catalogue should be updated to reflect the newly discovered identity of Object K.

CEO William Crowe says that the company intends to keep imaging unknown objects and publicly releasing their identities. At the moment HEO Robotics images objects in Low Earth Orbit and has plans to expand to Geostationary Orbit next year.

Rather than launch new satellites, potentially adding to the debris problem, HEO Inspect instead uses proprietary software to operate cameras on satellites that are already in space, tasking them to take pictures as they fly past objects of interest.

“Identifying a space object is kind of like looking out the window of an F1 car and snapping a photo of another F1 car which is going in the opposite direction 100km away, and being able to read the number plate” says Handmer, “except way harder, because everything is harder in space.”

Crowe is keen for more satellite operators to join the HEO Robotics supplier program: "We are scaling our space-based camera network to meet demand and would love companies with Earth Observation payloads in orbit already today, or those launching soon to reach out to us. We also have an option for spacecraft that wouldn't normally have a camera, where we supply one and provide you with another revenue stream when in orbit."

Kirkwood adds, “It's really exciting being able to contribute to the space community. We are in a unique position to offer insights that you can't get any other way, and we are committed to our core principles of transparency and being good space custodians and we are eager to share our skills and knowledge with the wider community. We're pleased with the response to our initial results, and we hope that our audience will follow along as we continue to learn, explore, collect more data and improve what we can do.”

A full version of the Object K Identification White Paper can be accessed here.