LeoLabs and New Zealand announce tool to monitor low Earth orbit activity

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SAN FRANCISCO – LeoLabs, a space situational awareness startup, has created a tool to help the New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA) continuously monitor satellites in low Earth orbit, LeoLabs and NZSA announced June 25.

The cloud-based Space Regulatory and Sustainability Platform relies on information from LeoLabs’ network of phased-array radars to track satellites in low Earth orbit. The mapping and software platform then analyses the data to ensure satellites launched from New Zealand are complying with licensing rules.

Companies and government agencies plan to send constellations of dozens, hundreds or thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit in the next few years, prompting concerns the heavy traffic could lead to satellites colliding with one another and create debris clouds.

“As a launching nation, we have a responsibility to minimize orbital debris and preserve space for future generations,” Peter Crabtree, general manager of New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which houses NZSA, said in a statement. “Understanding where objects are is the first step towards doing this.”

Through the Space Regulatory and Sustainability Platform, NZSA can track the position, heading and orbit of individual satellites, view historical orbit records, obtain reports on changes in a satellite’s orbit and receive alerts when a satellite is not complying with its licensing agreement, LeoLabs said in a June 25 news release.

The New Zealand Space Regulatory and Sustainability platform is the first of its kind, Mike Nicolls, LeoLabs co-founder and chief technology officer, said by email. “However, every space agency and regulatory body engaged in [low Earth orbit] will require a similar baseline of tools and capabilities to perform their own oversight function, and LeoLabs intends to work to create a standard offering for all of these agencies, all based on our core [low Earth orbit] mapping platform,” he added.

Under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, nations are responsible for authorizing and continually supervising satellites launched from their territory or their facilities. Rocket Lab began sending satellites into orbit from its New Zealand range in January 2018, two years after New Zealand established a space agency.

“The mission of the NZSA is to provide leadership and regulatory oversight for our rapidly expanding space sector,” Crabtree said. “Critical to achieving this mission is putting in place the tools and capability to monitor and ensure responsible and sustainable behavior. The Space Regulatory and Sustainability Platform developed with LeoLabs is a significant achievement in this direction and demonstrates current best practices within the commercial space regulatory arena. It also affirms our intent to be proactive in addressing the preservation of space for future generations.”

In 2018, LeoLabs and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment announced a memorandum of understanding to work together on various projects. LeoLabs plans to operate a phased array radar in Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. The parties also agreed to cooperate in space-related research and development activities.

Initially, NZSA will use the new platform to monitor satellites in orbit. In the future, the platform could be enhanced to assess collision risk and predict the location of objects re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, Nicholls said. The platform is “designed to reflect both the operational and the policy-oriented priorities of a regulatory agency, and help them evolve their parameters for compliance and responsible behavior,” he added.