Space radar to be built in Central Otago.

Tiny pieces of space junk will be tracked from a new type of radar station that a United States company will build in Central Otago next year.

The radar will be the third built by California company LeoLabs, joining facilities in Texas and Alaska, but its first capable of tracking objects in low-orbit that are as small as 2 centimetres in circumference.

LeoLabs chief executive Dan Ceperley would not disclose the exact location of the Central Otago radar facility as it is still awaiting council resource consent. 

The radar would "mostly look after itself", he said.

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"We will have a fence around it but mostly to protect the facility and stop people wandering through." 

But Ceperley said LeoLabs also planned to open an office in New Zealand within two years which would work with local software developers to create applications using its data.


The radar in central Otago will look similar to LeoLabs' facility in Midland, Texas (above).

SUPPLIED
The radar in central Otago will look similar to LeoLabs' facility in Midland, Texas (above).


There were 250,000 fragments in low-orbit that weren't currently tracked but which posed a danger to other satellites and to manned space-flights, he said.

The radar would help predict and prevent collisions, and would also check on the condition of newly-launched satellites, he said.

"We draw the line at 2cm, because if you are hit by an object that size, it will shatter your satellite and turn it into dust.

"Smaller than that and it can still do damage, but you will probably have a satellite with a hole punched through it which 'isn't great' but may be more manageable."  

Space debris could circle the Earth for hundreds of years and was tough to get rid of, he said. 


LeoLabs forecasts satellite companies will soon be operating networks of hundreds or even thousands of tiny "nano" satellites, such as this one made by Spire Global.

SPIRE GLOBAL
LeoLabs forecasts satellite companies will soon be operating networks of hundreds or even thousands of tiny "nano" satellites, such as this one made by Spire Global.


"We hope we are paving the way for a robust clean-up industry."

Efforts to sweep up space junk could take-off in the next few years "but needed the data on where it is and what risks it poses", Ceperley said.

The company wants to build a global of six tracking stations and raised US$13 million (NZ$20m) in July from investors that included aircraft-maker Airbus to expand its network.  

LeoLabs had received a "modest investment" from the Crown-owned Venture Investment Fund, he said. 

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had provided non-financial support through its Innovation Partnership scheme.


The space radar is part of a "wider plan", says Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods.

GEORGE HEARD/STUFF
The space radar is part of a "wider plan", says Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods.


"LeoLabs' presence in New Zealand will be hugely beneficial to New Zealand's emerging space industry," she said.

"It is part of a wider plan within the Innovative Partnerships programme to build a thriving innovation ecosystem attracting research and development particularly in new space, advanced aviation technologies and 'future foods'."

Customers for LeoLabs' data include satellite operators, government regulatory and space agencies, and insurers, Ceperley said.

The Central Otago radar would be a "first on the technical front and also the first radar of its type in the Southern Hemisphere which is a huge step forward for the global space community", he said.

"The data quality and collision-prediction isn't as good over the Southern Hemisphere and this radar is going to improve that situation dramatially."


Rocket Lab and NZ's emergent space industry helped LeoLabs settle on Central Otago as the site for its next facility.

ROCKET LAB
Rocket Lab and NZ's emergent space industry helped LeoLabs settle on Central Otago as the site for its next facility.


​LeoLabs picked New Zealand partly because of the development of its space industry, for which launch company Rocket Lab was "very clear example", Ceperley said.  

One of LeoLabs' customers is satellite company Planet, which has used Rocket Lab to put a satellite into space.

It was also really easy to do business in New Zealand, he said. 

Regulations have prevented companies from launching satellites into space that are smaller than 10cm in their smallest dimension.

But Ceperley said its radar stations could potentially help pave the way for smaller satellites, if there was demand.  

The Central Otago radar will be a phased-array radar with no moving parts that will use very high-frequency radio waves to detect objects.

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"LeoLabs' presence in New Zealand will be hugely beneficial to New Zealand's emerging space industry," she said.

"It is part of a wider plan within the Innovative Partnerships programme to build a thriving innovation ecosystem attracting research and development particularly in new space, advanced aviation technologies and 'future foods'."

Huh?? "...particularly in new space...future foods?.."

What future food a can of worms or human flesh and what are they detecting not satellites but maybe us spying.

Both, Michael - worms And human flesh and that's just for starters. Not like it hasn't happened before.

Plugging those holes in the Space Fence . . .

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