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New Zealand is about to get into the space junk business

Illustration: Getty Images

Two weeks ago, a satellite hurtling through space in low Earth orbit deployed a large net, snagging a small cubesat representing one of the thousands of fragments of space junk circling Earth.

The RemoveDEBRIS satellite was launched on its test mission from the International Space Station. Next year, the British scientists behind RemoveDEBRIS will test a harpoon, spearing a piece of junk so it can be dragged into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up harmlessly.

Such techniques seem drawn from the pages of Moby Dick. But they are the cutting-edge techniques being developed to clear away the debris increasingly cluttering the space just beyond our atmosphere.

Some 40,000 objects, many of them moving faster than a speeding bullet, are tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network. They range from discarded upper-stage rocket boosters to tools dropped by astronauts, but also smaller fragments created by inner space accidents, such as the 2009 collision of an Iridium satellite with a deactivated Russian military satellite, sending at least 2,000 fragments spinning off into their own orbit.

The fragments 10cm in size and above are easy enough to track and there are already tens of thousands of them. But there are over 250,000 more ranging in size from 1cm - 10cm that are potentially dangerous and harder to track. They could wreak havoc as companies like New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab enable the low-cost launch of thousands more “cube” satellites in the coming years.

An array of options

Now New Zealand is also being drawn into the effort to tackle the space junk problem. Menlo Park, California-based space mapping start-up LeoLabs has applied for resource consent to build a radar array in Central Otago that is designed to detect and track those tiny fragments of space debris.

The array, a half-pipe shaped collection of hundreds of high-frequency radars, will be the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It will focus specifically on finding fragments of space junk in low Earth orbit 2cm and smaller in size.

The entry hole created on Space Shuttle Endeavour's radiator panel by the impact of unknown space debris. Photo / Wiki Commons

“This is a type of radar called a phased array radar. You can actually electronically switch from satellite to satellite from one piece of debris and back, and that's important because this radar has to track thousands of objects,” says Leolabs chief executive Dan Ceperley, an electrical engineer who co-founded the company in 2016.

NOTED spoke to Ceperley in Wellington last week at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which has helped facilitate the Central Otago venture through its Innovative Partnerships programme.

The array will add to LeoLab’s other arrays in Texas and Alaska but serve as a prototype for more high-frequency arrays that will give the company a full picture of debris circling Earth at all times. LeoLabs plans to eventually have a network of six phased arrays around the world.

“The Earth is basically spinning beneath all the debris. So each radar has about two opportunities per day to check on a satellite or check on piece of debris,” says Ceperley. 

“That's important for us because when we go from two radars to three radars we go from four opportunities to six opportunities per day.”

The exact location of the planned array hasn’t been disclosed yet. Local companies will be involved in the construction of the pad that will house the array components which are being made in the US.

Once operational it won’t require personnel but will be controlled remotely by LeoLab’s team in the US, downloading the array data in real-time over the internet. Based on radar technology, it won’t be affected by cloud or the snow that regularly graces Central Otago each winter.

LeoLab's space radar in Alaska. Photo / supplied

Space industry spin-offs

The immediate benefits for New Zealand in terms of business activity will be relatively minor. However, MBIE has signed a memorandum of understanding with LeoLabs to join with the New Zealand Space Agency to “work together to grow New Zealand’s space industry and capabilities in space-related R&D", according to a statement from research, science and innovation minister, Dr Megan Woods.

But our relationship with LeoLabs will also be financial. LeoLab’s recently closed its Series A funding round, raising US$13 million. Investors include Airbus, which backed that daring RemoveDEBRIS experiment as well as the New Zealand Government’s Venture Investment Fund (VIF), which has invested in numerous tech companies.

It was our geographical location, business-friendly environment and growing presence in the space industry with the newly established agency and Rocket Lab’s activities that attracted LeoLabs, says Ceperley.

He describes the high-resolution imaging LeoLabs creates as being like Google Maps for space. As such, he sees scope for New Zealand businesses to use LeoLab’s data to create their own value-added services for satellite companies and their clients.

“There's a lot of interest brewing around the space sector. There's an opportunity for us to plug into that and bring our platform to enable new software companies,” says Ceperley.

“Now, you can get that data easily from us and you should really put all the effort into your own special sauce.”

LeoLabs emerged from a San Francisco Bay Area research lab where Ceperley was running a radio astronomy facility.

“I discovered there were two guys working down the hall from me who were building radars for the National Science Foundation,” he says.

“They were studying the northern lights, Aurora Borealis, and they happened to be tracking satellites and space debris as well. But it was noise in their scientific data.

“So they had great software to identify the satellites and cut them out of their scientific data. So we turned that around and we said, 'Well, there's a need for that'.”

10,000 satellites

The timing was perfect. Around 10,000 satellites are expected to be launched in the next three years, many of them cubesat devices that can fit into the palm of your hand. Some of them will form constellations of satellites further out in space providing everything from communications to weather data and precision tracking of land use and soil conditions.

PhoneSat 2.5 developed by NASA. Photo / NASA

With Rocket Lab radically reducing the cost of launching small satellites and the Indian space industry successfully launching dozens of satellites simultaneously from large rockets, the path to space will become more accessible than ever.

But that means more scope for collision in space and more fragments threatening to shred the hardware already in orbit.

Ceperley said the efforts to snag large bits of space junk are accelerating and the debut of cubesats with thrusters that will allow them to be more easily maneuvered to avoid collision will help the situation.

But it is the small debris that will continue to prove problematic, so getting a handle on exactly where it is will be critical.

“If you create debris in orbit where you've just packed a thousand satellites in, it actually threatens other satellites. It can be a big problem for your business,” he says.

“Satellite operators put a lot of effort into it, but that's five per cent of the risk. 95 per cent of the risk isn't being dealt with yet and the services that we are building are going to solve that and give us a sense of where the debris is coming from.”