In Focus

Beyond the Stars : Spacetug’s Quest for Space Sustainability

Founder Stories Ft. Hari Shankar. R. L

The Indian spacetech industry is gaining momentum driven by talent, innovation and advancement in technology infrastructure, following the successful Chandrayaan-3 mission, where India achieved a historic soft landing on the lunar south pole. This achievement has sparked a surge of interest in the nation's space endeavors.

One such startup having its roots in Tamil Nadu working in an interesting niche of space debris removal and orbital monitoring is Spacetug, founded by Hari Shankar and co-founded by Sugashini and Swetha.

SpaceTug functions with the vision of creating a cleaner and safer space where satellite missions and astronauts can operate without the fear of collisions with space debris. Not only mitigating the dangers of collision but also ensuring the longevity of communication satellites with critical space assets.

Space Debris / Junk: What it is and why cleaning it up matters?

Space debris, technically referred to as Orbital debris, refers to human-generated objects, such as pieces of spacecraft, parts of rockets or satellites that are no longer working or explosions of objects in orbit flying around in space at high speeds and can reach speeds of 18,000 miles per hour, almost seven times faster than a bullet!

Despite being invisible in the sky to the naked eye from the ground, beyond the clouds it exists in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). According to the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), which is tracking more than 26,000 pieces of orbital debris or space junk, The swift pace and volume of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) makes it a crowded space and signifies huge safety concerns for present and future space activities endangering both spaceborne individuals and assets as well as those on Earth.

NASA, World Economic Forum(WEF) and other leading organizations in several countries actively involved in space explorations including Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) have launched various programs to tackle this crisis of reducing the space scrap signifying the importance and looming threat it poses to the space environment.

Story behind the stories :

The Indian spacetech industry is witnessing a remarkable surge, fueled by talent, innovation, and robust technological infrastructure. The successful soft landing of Chandrayaan-3 on the lunar south pole has further accelerated interest in the nation's space pursuits.

India's prominence in the spacetech domain is underscored by its significant achievements, ranging from the Mars Orbiter mission to the recent Chandrayaan-3 milestone. The government, along with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), has been actively formulating policies to bolster startups in the space technology sector. Initiatives like the establishment of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) and the Make in India campaign have created a conducive environment for private sector participation. The implementation of policies such as the Indian Space Policy (2023) aims to enhance transparency and stimulate private sector engagement, driving the growth of the space economy in the country.

SpaceTug began its journey on 15 March 2022, with a team of three Co-Founders : Hari Shankar R L- Cofounder and CEO, Sugashini S Co-Founder and COO, Swetha Mohanachandran Co-Founder and CTO. The co-founders of SpaceTug first crossed paths at a space industry conference where they discovered a shared passion for addressing the growing issue of space debris and a smaller number of active players operating in this particular niche of spacetech.

Each having experience in satellite technology, aerospace engineering, and mission planning, the co-founders realized the potential synergies in their skill sets and aligned visions for starting a venture that is focussed in tackling the challenges of space debris removal for creating a sustainable space environment. United by this common goal, recognizing the increasing challenges posed by orbital debris to space exploration, satellite operations, and spacecraft safety, they were driven by a commitment to developing innovative solutions, thus SpaceTug was born. The mission of SpaceTug is rooted in their belief that actively contributing to the removal and mitigation of space debris is crucial for the long-term viability and safety of space endeavors.

The startup currently supported by the Tamil Nadu Technology (iTNT) hub is in the prototype development stage and bootstrapped, building an advanced robotic arm designed for precise satellite inspection, and autonomous object identification using cutting-edge computer vision and machine learning, ensuring precision and safety in space operation.

Like any startup journey, Spacetug faced its share of challenges and obstacles during its early years.

"In the early days, we faced significant challenges - from resource constraints to navigating the intricate investor landscape. Building a hardware product in the spacetech sector demanded everything under the sun. But overcoming these obstacles has only strengthened our resolve to make SpaceTug's vision a reality."

- Hari, Founder of SpaceTug

To ensure hardware equipment meets the standards for satellite launch, adherence to a stringent testing protocol, including the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) assessment is to be followed. With nine levels in total, reaching TRL-9 signifies readiness for satellite deployment. Hari and his team have successfully cleared TRL 3 and are in the process of developing the prototype, translating theoretical designs into tangible models.This pivotal step demonstrates the practical viability of the technology and allows for refinement. Various functionality testings are in progress towards TRL 9, a satellite equipped with the manipulator system, which will undergo debris removal missions. These missions serve to showcase its effectiveness in capturing and eliminating space debris in real-world scenarios, validating its readiness for widespread deployment.

Yazhi, the core of Spacetug

Yazhi, named after the mythical temple guardian, is a satellite designed for space debris removal in the lower Earth Orbit (LEO). Equipped with a robotic arm featuring 7 Degrees of Freedom (DoF), Yazhi utilizes advanced LiDAR technology for precise and robust operations. LiDAR, an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, enables accurate detection and navigation through space debris by emitting pulsed laser beams to measure distances to objects.

Powered by cutting-edge computer vision and machine learning algorithms, Yazhi autonomously identifies and approaches space debris, minimizing collision risks. Its sophisticated robotic arm performs precise debris capturing, inspections, and servicing tasks. Currently undergoing testing at Technology Readiness Level 3, Yazhi's control system, grasping mechanism, and feasibility are rigorously evaluated. This testing phase also assesses scalability and potential commercial applications, ensuring readiness for real-world deployment.

Yazhi is set for deployment in the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) ranging from 400 to 2000 kms above the earth, hosts satellites with shorter orbital periods commonly used for earth observation and communication, and aims to capture space debris in various shapes and sizes. In its initial phase, Yazhi operates semi-autonomously, utilizing a robotic manipulator and Active Debris Removal (ADR) Technique to capture debris weighing up to 4 tons and larger than 10cm. Featuring a versatile arm with three claws, Yazhi adapts its claws as necessary to capture both satellite debris and rocket bodies.

Before initiating capture, targeted debris undergoes analysis using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and VBN (Vision-Based Navigation) systems. LiDAR technology emits laser beams to measure distances, while VBN systems provide visual data to determine the debris's phase and exact position. To approach the target, Yazhi executes multiple maneuvers, utilizing RCS (Reaction Control System) thrusters to maintain attitude control. Despite precautions, the capture process carries a risk of collision. To address this risk, Yazhi is equipped with an Onboard Collision Avoidance System. This system promptly sends Conjunction Data Messages (CDM) to ground stations upon detecting potential collisions. Upon receipt of CDM, collision avoidance maneuvers are swiftly executed to safeguard Yazhi from harm.

Several exciting features are in the pipeline for Yazhi's future. Firstly, real-time monitoring will enable continuous surveillance of space debris, ensuring rapid responses to potential threats and enhancing overall space safety. Furthermore, in our next phase of development, Yazhi will boast autonomous operation capabilities driven by advanced AI. This means the satellite can function independently, efficiently managing complex tasks with precision. This autonomy will greatly enhance operational efficiency, minimizing the need for constant human intervention.

At the UmagineTN 2024 event, SpaceTug attracted considerable interest when Hon’ble Minister Dr. Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, Department of Information Technology and Digital Services, personally viewed the functionalities of Yazhi prototype. The demonstration received enthusiastic feedback, with the minister praising the initiative and offering valuable feedback and advice for the startup's future endeavors.

Hari and his team are subsequently working on Drag sail (D-sail). The drag sail plays a vital role in managing satellites that attain the end of their life cycle. It's a thin, foldable membrane attached to satellites, which, when deployed, increases their surface area. This helps the satellite interact with the Earth's atmosphere in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), causing it to gradually lose altitude. As satellites near the end of their operational life, deploying the drag sail helps ensure a controlled descent back to Earth.

Commercialization and Revenue Model:

As SpaceTug gears up for the launch of Yazhi-1, the team is eagerly anticipating the commencement of their commercial mission focused on debris removal and satellite servicing. With support from initiatives like IN-SPACe and the Make in India program, By providing services such as active debris removal and in-orbit servicing, SpaceTug aims to cater to the needs of both commercial satellite operators and government agencies.

SpaceTug operates on a service-based revenue model, catering to two main sectors: Space Debris Removal and In-Orbit Servicing. In the realm of debris removal and end-of-life satellite management, SpaceTug offers proactive solutions to mitigate the threat of space debris, benefiting commercial satellite operators, government agencies, and space insurance companies. Additionally, SpaceTug provides in-orbit servicing, extending the lifespan of satellites in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) through hardware upgrades, repairs, and maintenance. By enhancing spacecraft capability and functionality, SpaceTug contributes to optimal satellite operation, benefiting both satellite operators and space agencies.

Conclusion :

The Indian space industry is on the brink of a monumental transformation, with its market value projected to skyrocket from $9.6 billion in 2020 to a staggering $100 billion by 2040. Against this backdrop, SpaceTug anticipates launching Yazhi-1 by 2026, and discussions with ISRO to facilitate the launch through IN-SPACe are underway. Startup founder’s like Hari and SpaceTug’s journey reflects the innovative spirit thriving in Tamil Nadu’s supportive environment for startups and immense opportunities ahead, underscoring the potential for SpaceTug to play a pivotal role in the Indian spacetech industry.

Sounds Interesting? To know more about SpaceTug : SpaceTug
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