This sponsored article was published in SpaceNews on December 28th, 2023.
As concern about space sustainability advances globally, NorthStar Earth and Space (NorthStar) will soon bring a first-in-class Space-Based SSA satellite constellation into service that will provide unique insights from tracking where space objects are and how they behave, fueling multiple decisions across safety and security boundaries. This information will improve decision-making for government and commercial space operators and enable decisions by entrepreneurs and regulators for future space missions like satellite servicing and other innovations in the space economy.
Headquartered in Montreal, Canada with subsidiaries in Washington, D.C., and Luxembourg City, NorthStar was conceived from its early beginnings in 2012 as a global company, given widespread interest in leveraging the benefits of the space economy. Aside from those major hubs, NorthStar has raised over $100m in investments from Canadian, European, and U.S. investors, in addition to commercial partnerships that extend the company’s reach to Asia, South Asia, and Australia. NorthStar’s existing business has created high-tech jobs in areas ranging from astrodynamics to satellite design, software engineering, and imagery analysis, to name a few. Its products have been designed for near-term use by government and commercial customers as well as to help drive innovative new capabilities that will be needed as the foundation of the space economy.
As early as January 2024, the first four of a planned 24 NorthStar satellites will fly aboard a Rocket Labs Electron rocket, representing the first-ever SSA-satellite-as-a-service constellation. Starting with this initial flight, NorthStar will enable continuous monitoring of satellites and nearby objects, providing state vectors for early detection and warning of safety- and security-related phenomena.
As NorthStar operates in space, it complements ground based SSA systems and creates additional advantage by allowing for more frequent observations that feed proprietary, advanced orbit determination algorithms that increase trajectory model accuracy and reduce the uncertainty associated with a space object’s position. NorthStar’s “always on” constellation allows for around the clock monitoring of objects in LEO, MEO, and GEO orbits while avoiding the limitations of ground-based sensors. NorthStar’s initial services will include maneuver detection, conjunction warning, and anomaly detection at a level of precision not yet publicly available to commercial operators.
Space-based SSA has additional advantages to consider. Legacy ground-based collection systems have specific orientation – mainly to cover the Eurasian landmass – while commercial systems are limited by geography, distance, atmospheric, and high relative dynamics limitations. Today, and even after current modernization plans, there will be large gaps in coverage in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, and at the South Pole. NorthStar’s planned flight of twelve (12) satellites by 2026 increases coverage of more than sixty (60) percent of the sky at any given time and potentially one hundred (100) percent if used in collaboration with multiple government resources.
Providing a Holistic Picture of the Space Environment
Data collection is not enough to track and characterize activities in the space environment. NorthStar’s deep investment in modeling and simulation, as well as data fusion capabilities have already demonstrated the value of integrating a wide range of SSA and other data sources into a coherent picture, whether in a wide-area view or in monitoring activities around a specific space object. NorthStar’s data fusion capabilities have already been successfully tested in exercises on problems requiring assessment of unstable debris to satellites whose position has been lost. These capabilities are extremely important in a world where space monitoring and assessment need to take place across national boundaries and diverse information sources.
A dynamic and coherent picture of what’s happening in space is vital for all space operators. The need to protect the lives of the astronauts aboard the International Space Station and the growing number of commercial human spaceflights is priority one, while all commercial operators often face complex decisions about whether and how to move, given natural and manmade debris, and the need to preserve fuel, maintain mission focus, and other economic costs associated with safe passage. Increasingly, NorthStar’s clientele includes commercial operators – like Luxembourg’s SES – who need additional monitoring to ensure space safety.
Governments are no different. As the United Nations and many other global actors pursue an effective space traffic coordination and management system, they will have to rely on much more timely, accurate, and a holistic picture to keep space operators safe while preserving options and maximizing the benefits of the space economy for all.
As the space environment grows more congested and contested, the enormous potential of the space economy will rest increasingly on conflict avoidance and effective protection of commercial operations in space. This creates an even more urgent demand for improved awareness, especially where there is growing evidence of unexpected proximity operations, rapid orbital shifts and the development of co-orbital weapons. NorthStar’s constellation and analytic capabilities are uniquely poised to support the individual and collective security missions of Canada and the United States and their Five Eyes partners, as well as France, Germany, and Japan, and including broader efforts in Asia, Europe, and within NATO.
NorthStar is no stranger to Allied space and defense issues, having participated regularly in the annual Schriever Wargame and in the Sprint Advanced Concept Training (SACT) exercises sponsored by the US Departments of Defense and Commerce. NorthStar regularly hosts the SACT’s Meridien Cell at its European Headquarters in Luxembourg, consistent with other efforts on behalf of the US Space Force’s Joint Commercial Operations Cell (JCO). NorthStar has worked with Canadian Department of National Defense (DND) and US Space Force (USSF) officials in the planning and execution of these exercises designed to improve allied communications about developments in the space environment as well as test commercial capabilities to anticipate and assess adversary behavior. NorthStar was grantsaed an award by the US Department of Commerce in 2019 that recognized the firm’s contribution to the US economy and to the Canada-US relationship.
Within the United States, NorthStar works with a wide range of US government agencies and commercial partners from its Washington, DC office. NorthStar was one of only seven firms awarded a role in the Department of Commerce’s 2022 GEO pilot project, and the US team routinely consults with organizations like DARPA and NASA, the US Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office (COMSO), various Intelligence Community agencies, and others. NorthStar has the lead role in organizing the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s working group on SSA. Plans are underway to enable the US subsidiary to work with the full range of US government agencies.
NorthStar’s global business serves to strengthen defense and other ties around the world. Luxembourg’s early and continuing investment in NorthStar reflects a strong belief in the economic importance of space while also serving broader defense, development, and other global interests. NorthStar’s partnerships in Japan have been designed to explore new technical horizons – combining space surveillance with space object characterization – while also offering early warning space capabilities in a geopolitically complex Pacific region.
These partnerships span the entire SSA value chain: NorthStar is nurturing other partnerships around the world to combine astrodynamics and modeling expertise with data fusion, knowledge graph and inferencing capability to create a world class capability for “pattern of life” capabilities for space objects in much the same way as has been developed for behaviors here on Earth. Multiple conversations are underway for NorthStar to support the French and UK Space Commands, the Japanese Ministry of Defense, and NATO considering its updated space strategy.
NorthStar’s Team and Ethos
Space sustainability and security are international issues transcending geopolitics, space science, environmental threats, and other domains, and they will need to be achieved in an environment where the balance between government and commercial activities is shifting rapidly. NorthStar is taking this on with a world-class multidisciplinary team that is based around the world and focused on the top challenges of its government and commercial clients.
NorthStar’s CEO Stewart Bain is an internationally recognized commentator on space innovation and space sustainability. From his early work as an aerospace engineer and in global business development, Stewart has dedicated his personal and professional activities to helping improve the importance of space in our daily lives to the urgent need to focus on space safety and sustainability. He has been a pioneer in establishing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria for safe and sustainable operations in space. Drawing upon Albert Einstein’s comments that “we cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it” Stewart routinely calls upon leaders from all industries to reflect on how they leverage space within their own businesses and how think about sustainability.
Looking to the Future
NorthStar’s immediate focus is the successful launch of its first four satellites expected next month. Efforts to improve data processing and analysis to enable assessment and prediction of space activities continue in parallel. As does an intense level of customer engagement.
One example of NorthStar’s continuing investment in innovation is their focus on improving the reliability and accuracy of space data. NorthStar’s planned future products will deliver enhanced identification features to significantly reduce frequent mis-tagging of resident space objects. These enhancements will be made possible only through NorthStar’s unique tracking method.
Further, an increasing amount of scientific data points to deep linkages between the environments of Earth and space, creating new opportunities and the need for data collection and assessment. Beyond the work on SSA, NorthStar has an existing business assessing hyperspectral data for Canadian government entities on issues related to resource quality and resource management. Following the successful flight of the SSA constellation, NorthStar has their own concrete plans to take hyperspectral imagery to space in 2026.
NorthStar looks forward to helping with the future challenges and the opportunities of the global space economy. As the company embarks on this groundbreaking journey with a first-in-class satellite constellation, NorthStar is not just launching satellites, but enabling a new era of space safety, sustainability, and security. NorthStar’s capabilities in continuous monitoring and advanced data analysis will revolutionize how we understand and interact with the space environment. It is based on a commitment to ensuring that the benefits of the space economy are safe and accessible for all, from entrepreneurs to space operators to government agencies to all users of the space economy. NorthStar is proud to be at the forefront of this transformative movement, setting a new standard for responsible and innovative operations that will serve as the foundation of the future space economy.