Menlo Park, California-based LeoLabs, founded in 2016, is a dazzling company. They have built and are expanding a network of ground-based phased array radars around the world to track the thousands of operational satellites, defunct satellites, spent missile bodies and debris in orbit around the earth. Not only is their radar technology groundbreaking, but they have created a spectacular, if not slightly terrifying, digital visualization of traffic in space that is free to the public.
The visualization shown here is really amazing. The company, of which astronaut Edward Lu is a founding member, was started in a remarkable way. Based on high-level research at the SRI, the founders' initial work did not focus on satellites and space debris at all.
A screenshot of the LeoLabs Low Earth Orbit Visualization. Image Credit: LeoLabs
Alan DeClerck, vice president of business development and strategy, recalls, “The original science was about ionospheric research.” The original radar array, built in Alaska, was designed to study the behavior of charged particles from the solar wind when they interact with the Earth's magnetic field . This interaction can cause problems with satellites and ground-based electrical equipment, and is the origin of the beautiful aurora borealis.
The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, as seen over Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. This beautiful phenomenon takes place in the ionosphere, and understanding this region was a major focus of research that eventually led to LeoLabs. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua Strang
DeClerck went on to describe how a graph of these initial data from co-founder and current technical director Michael Nicolls spawned the concept of LeoLabs. Regarding the separation of the data generated by satellites and space debris from his ionospheric data, Nicolls once pointed out a significant by-product of his research, saying, “… this (ionospheric data) was the relevant research data, and THIS (satellite and space debris) was all the noise that wasn't relevant to my science so I was really good at identifying and removing it. But in the end, it was the satellite and debris data that provided the commercial opportunity.
After realizing the incredible potential of radar data, the company worked to expand the radar network and create a LEO data platform with a nice way to interact with it visually. As DeClerck puts it, "In the early days when we presented this vision, we heard the phrase you use to create the Google maps of low-earth orbit!"
The Alaska facility was soon joined by a second array in Midland, Texas in 2017. These first two installations use ultra-high frequency or UHF radar. These installations can detect space debris up to a size range of about 10 centimeters. Imagine being able to spot a grapefruit from hundreds of kilometers away at a speed of 28,000 km / h and measure its speed accurately enough to map its future path for tens of thousands of kilometers!
The Kiwi Space Radar facility in New Zealand. Image Credit: LeoLabs
The third LeoLabs radar system has significantly improved the game over the first two. This facility is located in New Zealand and is known as the Kiwi Space Radar. It uses S-band radar (even a higher frequency than UHF). It has a resolution that can track objects up to two centimeters, roughly the diameter of a US penny! The Kiwi Space Radar is the first of its kind to be built in the southern hemisphere. While the resolution improvement achieved by upgrading to S-Band looks like LeoLabs is just showing off, this is the size range where better tracking is needed most. According to DeClerck, around 95% of the collision risks come from objects that are smaller than 10 cm. The next three radars, which are expected to be completed by 2022, will all be S-band.
All of this spectacular radar technology, brilliant software, and visualizations are necessary as the crowded area of space known as low-earth orbit (this is the LEO in LeoLabs) can be a dangerous place. The nightmare scenario in which orbital collisions cause a cascade of more debris that leads to a runaway chain reaction of collisions (known as the Kessler Effect) is not beyond the realm of possibility. Maintaining LEO as a safe space (pun intended) is critical. As DeClerck says, “… Earth orbit is of course the base for everything else you want to do in space, not to mention the global economy’s growing reliance on LEO for critical services like telecommunications and earth observation. ”
DeClerck, concerned with the conservation of LEO, explains, "There are basically three steps you can take to address the sustainability and safety of flight issues that arise from all this debris."
What are these three things?
- Avoid creating more space debris
- Monitor objects in the room (and avoid them if possible)
- Clean up LEO
Step one is for space companies and satellite operators to take appropriate action to achieve this, and this is now supported by significant technological advances. Steps two and three become much easier to accomplish with the work of LeoLabs.
Commercial versions of LeoLabs products are available to space agencies and private companies through subscription. Actors in the space environment can use LeoLabs to monitor satellites and space debris and to actively avoid collisions. DeClerck also mentions some ambitious and innovative companies like Astroscale, whose job it is to clean up space debris that could take advantage of the high spatial and temporal resolution of LeoLabs data and software.
A possible collision visualized by LeoLabs. The closest approach for the two objects will be on November 16, 2020. The relative speed between the two objects is an extraordinary 12.7 km / s, but luckily the probability of a collision is around a tenth of a percent. Image Credit: LeoLabs
Collisions and near misses (fortunately MUCH more common) are predicted by LeoLabs and can even be visualized by the public here. The software gives estimates of the likelihood of a collision and even the relative speed of the two objects to give an idea of the energy associated with those collisions. Low-speed collisions occur around one kilometer per second, while higher-speed frontal collisions can occur well over 12 kps.
There are few places on the internet as interesting to fans of space technology and science as LeoLabs. The visualizations are stunning and full of rabbit holes to explore for hours (you can specify constellations of satellites or even individual objects to be tracked; it's fascinating). You also render an essential service to all space agencies and companies that use or intend to use space and, more broadly, an important service to all of us back home on earth. A company whose improbable beginnings were researching the behavior of the ionosphere, finding a way to collect satellite and space debris data, and then combining that with spectacular software development to create such a stylish and effective product, is extremely satisfying .
Close the call in January 2020