The small satellite revolution has transformed space into a business valued at more than $300bn, but it has also created a traffic management problem with millions of pieces of junk whizzing around the planet.
LeoLabs, a Silicon Valley-based start-up, is working to solve the space debris problem by mapping low Earth orbit, the region stretching from 160 to 2,000km above the earth, to track about 250,000 objects that are bigger than a golf ball.
To achieve the task it is deploying a network of powerful radars around the world to provide collision avoidance services and data to satellite providers, governments and companies developing the new wave of space-based services.
“Right now only 13,000 objects are being tracked in low earth orbit — about 1,000 satellites and 12,000 prices of debris,” says Dan Ceperley, co-founder and chief executive of LeoLabs. “That is only 5 per cent of the debris, which is a threat to satellites.”
Space junk travels at speeds about seven times faster than a bullet and can cause enormous damage when it collides with satellites, which, in turn creates further clouds of junk.
In 1996 a piece of space debris tore off a 2m chunk of a French spy satellite and in August the International Space Station began leaking air through a 2mm hole, which scientists think might have been caused by a debris strike.
Space missions and satellite providers can manoeuvre their craft to avoid debris that is tracked. Experts predict the problem is likely to worsen as the volume of satellites in low earth orbit increases over the coming years.
“Space situational awareness is a big deal as more satellites means more traffic management,” says Brad Tucker, an astronomer at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“Moreover, you need coverage all around the world to track these satellites and space debris, given that objects in low Earth orbit travel around the planet every 90 minutes,” he said.
ANU is one of dozens of academic institutions that track space debris. It uses lasers to track objects just a few centimetres in diameter. But LeoLabs is one of the first commercial ventures involved in the task.
The company aims to generate revenue by tracking debris on behalf of civilian and military agencies. In July it raised $13m in funding from Japan’s WERU Investment and Airbus Ventures, the early stage investment arm of the European aerospace group.
On Sunday, LeoLabs revealed New Zealand as the third location for its network of phased array radar, which it claims is the first of its type in the southern hemisphere. It already has similar radars in Texas and Alaska and plans three more to complete its global network.
Mr Ceperley says each new radar boosts the frequency of observations of low Earth orbit, which improves the accuracy of data and therefore the ability of customers to respond to events in space. “Our mapping system is like the Google Maps of space,” he told the Financial Times.
LeoLabs has signed up satellite companies Digital Global and Planet as customers for its subscription-based services.
Last year, Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated the value of the space market — ranging from the manufacture and use of infrastructure, to space-enabled applications such as satellite phones and weather services — at $339bn and forecast it would expand to $2.7tn by 2045.
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