LeoLabs tracks debris cloud expanding in low Earth orbit
SAN FRANCISCO – LeoLabs was alerted early Nov. 15 that something was happening in low Earth orbit.
Before the Silicon Valley space mapping startup heard of the Russian antisatellite test, its global network of phased array radars detected an object in low Earth orbit that quickly turned into six radar blips, then 31. As of 3 pm eastern time on Nov. 16, LeoLabs was tracking 216 objects larger than 10 centimeters in diameter stemming from the Russian antisatellite test.
The debris cloud is spreading quickly.
“We’re seeing it now stretching at least a third of the way around the world,” LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley told SpaceNews. Ceperley expects the debris to cloud to spread until it resides in the shape of a shell around Earth because that’s what happened after China’s antisatellite test in 2007 and the 2009 collision of an Iridium commercial communications satellite with a defunct Russian satellite.
LeoLabs expects to be issuing collision alerts for many years to help satellite operators dodge the new debris field.
LeoLabs is tracking 17,000 space objects with phased array radars in Alaska, New Zealand, Texas and Costa Rica. The firm is in the process of extending its space-tracking infrastructure to Australia and the Azores archipelago.
“We’re hoping to bring transparency,” Ceperley said. “If you’re going to put something in space, and especially if you’re going to undertake a risky activity, you should know it’s going to be noticed, it’s going to be reported on and it’s going to be condemned. I think that’s the only way we can drive safety and drive deterrence.”
LeoLabs has moved from detecting the cloud of debris created by the antisatellite test to tracking individual pieces of debris and looking for potential collisions with working satellites. The debris is located at altitudes between 440 and 520 kilometers.
“This just adds an extra degree of urgency to our day-to-day business,” Ceperley said.
In addition to the debris LeoLabs is tracking, which is softball-size and larger, the U.S. State Department said the strike generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller debris. The trackable debris is as small as two centimeters in diameter.