In late January, two satellites that had harmlessly orbited the Earth for decades almost collided with one another. Had they done so, at speeds of 14 kilometers per second, both would have been instantly obliterated.
This is what people who work in space industries call a “catastrophic collision.” The catastrophe, as it turns out, isn’t the expiration of the two satellites themselves. The catastrophic part refers to what would happen next. The two former satellites would have become celestial shotgun blasts, clouds of tiny debris. Initially, these would have followed their original orbits. Over the course of the next few months, however, both would have dispersed, creating a thin shell of debris around the Earth. Anyone passing through this shell at any point during the next few centuries, whether another satellite or a manned spaceship headed to the moon or Mars, would have faced an increased risk of collision with one of the tiny, potentially deadly, high-speed fragments.
Fortunately, this didn’t happen. The two satellites whizzed past one another with a clearance of just 40 feet between them, equivalent to less than half a regulation basketball court. On this occasion, we got lucky.
But the near-miss highlights something important. None of us has much of an awareness of events that are taking place some 560 miles above our heads. Despite (rightful) renewed concern about the impact humanity is having on our Earthbound environment, we don’t necessarily reserve the same fearfulness for what we’re doing to our environment even as close to home as Low Earth Orbit. It is, in some senses, a Wild West of unregulated activity. And not enough people are paying attention.
Fortunately, a Silicon Valley space mapping startup called LeoLabs is. They were the ones who sounded the alarm about the recent satellite close shave. And they’re hoping to revolutionize the way we track satellites and other objects in space. It can’t happen soon enough!
Space traffic control
Every day, some 15,000 people in the United States wake up and go to work as federal air traffic controllers, keenly focused on a slice of airspace to make sure that every aircraft in U.S. airspace remains properly separated from one another in the sky. At a major airport, there can be more than 50 controllers on duty at any one time. At an air traffic control center that number is in the hundreds.
How many people, by comparison, are keeping an eye on space traffic? Probably fewer than you would expect. “Before us, nobody was watching for derelict satellite collisions,” Dan Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs told Digital Trends.
On the surface, space traffic management sounds like the kind of no-show job Tony Soprano might organize for a nephew, requiring little more than collecting a regular paycheck for minimal work. I mean, whoever heard of traffic in space? As it turns out, space traffic is a bigger problem than most of us might realize. Ceperley likes to show people an image when he talks about what it is that he does for a living. At first glance, it looks like a picture of a virus under a microscope, a dark sphere being swarmed over by tiny green dots. In fact, it’s a visualization depicting the past 24 hours of Low Earth Orbit, complete with all the objects that are currently circling our planet. “It’s impressive in kind of a scary way,” he said.
Right this moment, there are approximately 14,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters in Low Earth Orbit. Around 1,400 of these are functioning satellites. The others are a mix of derelict satellites, old rocket bodies, and assorted pieces of space detritus that no-one has been able or willing to remove. Ten centimeters, approximately four inches, might not sound particularly large. But at the speed they’re traveling, multiple times that of a bullet fired from a rifle, it’s easy enough to cause a catastrophic collision for anything it collides with.
Keeping up with demand
LeoLabs provides a 24/7 monitoring service for what’s going on in the skies. There are two core technologies at work. The first is a growing network (currently three, with another three planned for the next two years) of ground-based radars. Based in Alaska, Texas, and New Zealand, these space surveillance radars scour the skies, singling out any object which passes overhead in Low Earth Orbit. LeoLabs’ phased array radars are capable of quickly switching from looking at one satellite to another, as frequently as every millisecond should they so wish. In an increasingly crowded sky, that’s a necessity.
Before LeoLabs came along, the only people building comparable radars were giant defense agencies or space organizations. However, Ceperley points out that, as more and more satellites are launched into orbit, the supply of these radars simply fell behind demand.
“With the amount of new traffic that’s coming online, building one new radar a decade just doesn’t keep up with everything that’s going on in space,” he said. “We’re using a different model, racing ahead as fast as we can.”
The second core technology driving LeoLabs is its software. “We have a platform which analyzes that data and sends out information in the form of alerts,” he explained. “If you need to know about your satellite, we can tell you precisely where it is, where it’s going to be in the next week, and if it’s going to face any risky situations in that time.”
Mapping the skies
Ceperley met his two LeoLabs co-founders in their previous job at SRI International, the legendary San Francisco research lab which helped spawn the first computer mouse and the Siri voice assistant. Ceperley worked there for eight years, carrying out government-funded research on how it could do a better job tracking satellites. As part of his job, he regularly heard from private companies asking for help tracking their satellites.
It wasn’t until he met with fellow SRI engineers Mike Nicolls and John Buonocore that the idea for what became LeoLabs started to develop, however.
“It turns out that [they] were working down the hall,” Ceperley recalled. “They were studying Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. They had spent about 20 years designing and building radars to do that. One day they called me down the hall and said, ‘We hear you need satellite data. Let us show you what we’re gathering.’”
The pair handed Ceperley an image, which looked like a window, streaked with raindrops. He asked what it was. Nicolls and Buonocore told him that each of the slashes on the image was a satellite or piece of space debris crossing the field they wanted to observe. The satellites were ruining their observations to the point that they had spent the past two years building software to recognize and digitally erase them from their data. Ceperley was astounded.
“Your trash could be someone else’s treasure,” he told them.
LeoLabs was officially formed in 2015. It was an instant success in the industry, having pulled in $17 million of investment to date. The company provides its services as a subscription model. People can pay to access its findings — and be warned when there is risk of a possible collision. (No, it’s not possible to make a satellite turn left or right to avoid collisions. But you can vary speed the way two cars might coordinate to go through an intersection.)
So far, LeoLabs has picked up clients in the defense, insurance, and regulatory fields. But its biggest new audience is private satellite owners. In recent years, this is the demographic that has exploded onto the scene, with an influx of everything from small-scale startups launching individual CubeSats to giants like SpaceX shooting veritable sky-blotting armies of satellites into orbit.
Along with its “satellite tracking as a service” business model, one of the ways LeoLabs is innovating is by finding ways to track ever-smaller objects in space. Its most recent new radar, the New Zealand-based Kiwi Space Radar, came online at the end of 2019. For the first time, it lets LeoLabs track orbiting objects as small as two centimeters in size. When you broaden the parameters by monitoring objects down to this size, the total number of orbiting objects increases from 14,000 to a massive 250,000. Even at two centimeters, these previously untracked objects are capable of shattering any satellite that they collide with.
“Once we’re tracking [that kind of] small stuff, we might see 20 near-misses per week,” Ceperley said.
There’s still work to be done. Rolling out its radar network will increase LeoLabs’ forecasting abilities. But the company also hopes to raise awareness about the issue of space traffic. Like the astronomers starting to sound the alarm about the massive numbers of satellites being launched into space, LeoLabs wants to educate the public — and lawmakers — about a field that is still in its infancy when it comes to rules and regulations.
“At the moment there really isn’t a good definition of what safety in space means,” Ceperley said. “I think a big reason for that is that there hasn’t been that much data about what is the risk situation in space. That’s fundamentally what we’ve set out to solve. With our background in radars and software, we knew we could create a large data set and data feed showing the situation in space. That can then be used to help define what is safe — and highlight what’s not.”