This Startup’s New Radar Facility Will Help Protect The ISS And Satellites From Space Junk

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In late May, the robotic arm of the International Space Station was struck by a piece of space debris. Thankfully, the impact was relatively small and didn’t cause much damage or impact the arm’s performance, according to the Canadian Space Agency. But as hundreds of new satellites are being added to low Earth orbit every year, the risk of debris—and the millions of dollars of economic damage it can cause—is ever-increasing. It’s a risk that’s constantly on Dan Ceperley’s mind. 

“The number one risk to the space station is collisions with small, untracked debris,” he says. “And that event really highlights it.”

Ceperley may know about this risk better than few others. He’s the CEO of Menlo Park, California-based LeoLabs, which has a series of radar installations around the world aimed at keeping track of the thousands of small bits of debris in orbit and helping satellite owners avoid collisions. 

On Wednesday, the company announced that it’s expanding its radar system to the Azores in Portugal, which will help widen the view of the company’s tracking systems and enable it to track even more debris in orbit. Construction on the facility should be complete in less than a year, and once online will bolster the company’s capabilities, Ceperley says. 

The additional coverage “gives us timeliness, gives us data quality, gives us the ability to really accurately track all of the satellites and space debris,” he adds. “It also helps us with our steady march towards tracking smaller debris by having more capacity in the overall network.”

Ceperley founded the company as a spinout of research he was doing in radio astronomy at SRI International. He and his team had developed technology that allowed their radio telescopes to “filter out” satellites and space debris to ensure they were only getting data from the astronomical objects they were looking at. But by flipping the technique around, they were also able to use radar to find satellites and debris. That was the insight the company was built on. 

Since then, the company has built radar installations in Alaska, Texas, New Zealand and Costa Rica. For its customers, it offers data on a software as a service model, both with its off-the-shelf software as well as custom software to pinpoint what customers want. Its client list is a veritable who’s who of the space industry, including satellite companies Planet, Spire, Digital Globe, aerospace companies like SpaceX and Maxar, and government agencies such as the New Zealand Space Agency and the Department of Defense. 

What’s even more remarkable is that it accomplished this with relatively little capital. The United States Air Force’s Space Fence, which was also built to track space debris, cost over $1.5 billion to complete. LeoLabs, by contrast, has raised just under $100 million in venture backing, most recently with a $65 million series B round earlier this month that valued the company at $380 million, according to Pitchbook. 

The plan for the new round of capital, Ceperley says, is to build more radar installations like the one in the Azores and to expand its data and software capabilities. His overarching goal? To track even tiny particles of space debris in orbit in order to protect his customers’ assets. 

“At the moment, the industry is to track 10-centimeter sized objects — there’s about 17,000 of those,” he says. “Our mission, in the next couple of years, is to get down to tracking two-centimeter objects, and there’s about 250,000 of those.”

By getting his company’s capabilities down to objects that small, he continues, incidents like the collision last month won’t happen anymore. “That way, the space station doesn’t have that risk anymore, satellites don’t have that risk anymore,” he says. “And then we’ll keep going to track the smaller stuff.” 

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