MENLO PARK, Calif. — With $4 million in the bank and two radars tracking satellites and debris in low Earth orbit, Silicon Valley startup LeoLabs is now open for business.
LeoLabs began operating a phased-array radar in Midland, Texas, in February. With data from the new Midland facility and a radar near Fairbanks, Alaska, LeoLabs can track 94 percent of all objects 10 centimeters or larger in low Earth orbit, Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs founder and chief executive, told SpaceNews.
Low Earth orbit has become increasingly crowded in recent years as the cost of building and launching small satellites has fallen. That crowding is likely to worsen in the next few years as companies pursue plans to launch constellations of communications and Earth observation satellites.
“There is more congestion,” Ceperley said. “The sooner we can get out ahead of this, the better off everybody is going to be.”
LeoLabs plans to expand its radar network until it can track all objects measuring two centimeters or larger in low Earth orbit, or approximately 200,000 objects. The company aims to reach that goal in 2018.
“This small debris can do severe damage to satellites and it is not being tracked,” Ceperley said.
LeoLabs has shied away from publicity since it was founded in Menlo Park, California, in December 2015 by Ceperley and Mike Nicolls, the firm’s chief technical officer. Both founders came from SRI International, the nonprofit research organization where Ceperley led a team focused on commercial satellite tracking and Nicolls built phased-array radars to study Earth’s ionosphere.
The problem with Nicolls’ data was that his radars were constantly picking up signals from satellites and debris, which he had to remove to focus on the ionosphere. Eventually, Nicolls and Ceperley realized they could use the dataset for both scientific research and commercial satellite tracking. When the business case became clear, SRI spun out LeoLabs.
“Right out of the gate we had data, radar hardware and we could begin building the radar in Midland,” Ceperley said. “It enabled us to get up and running quickly to address this need.”
LeoLabs has raised $4 million in an initial investment round from a consortium that includes Horizons Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Hong Kong, and Airbus Ventures, the aerospace giant’s early-stage investment group.
Airbus Ventures is backing LeoLabs because it anticipates a dramatic increase in congestion in low Earth orbit in the coming decades. “As great investments are made in areas such as constellations of satellites to provide affordable internet access, it’s imperative that technology be developed simultaneously to protect these investments,” François Auque, the former chief executive of Airbus Group’s defense and space business who leads Airbus Ventures European investment activities, said by email. “LeoLabs is providing the vital technology to reduce collisions between debris, satellites, and other items that will enter low earth orbit in the future. The company provides comprehensive communications and early warning detection. We are proud to support them as they refine their phased-array radar systems to track even smaller debris at an even more exacting range.”
Before turning on the Texas radar in February, LeoLabs tracked satellites and debris using the radar SRI began operating in Alaska in 2007 with funding from the National Science Foundation. That radar continues to provide SRI with scientific data as LeoLabs uses it for spacecraft tracking.
In February, LeoLabs completed installation of its Texas radar, which has more than 100 radar elements. Nicolls designed the Texas radar, which is shaped like one side of a snowboarder’s halfpipe, specifically to pick up the weak signals produced when radar waves bounce off satellites and debris in low Earth orbit.
LeoLabs uses the Alaska radar to track objects in polar orbit. The Texas radar is particularly useful for tracking satellites and debris near the International Space Station, which passes over the site, Ceperley said.
After testing its products in recent months with initial customers, LeoLabs is welcoming new customers. “We believe this is the first commercial service for low Earth orbit tracking,” Ceperley said.
Satellite operators can hire LeoLabs to track spacecraft when they first reach orbit. “We can help track satellites immediately after they are delivered to space and in the first critical weeks so operators know where their satellites are and when they are going to pass over ground stations,” Ceperley said.
LeoLabs also offers a collision avoidance service to notify customers when an object is headed for their satellites. “Everything can be fully automated,” Ceperley said. “You don’t have to pick up a phone and call us and say, ‘We need help.’ We have a software interface that lets different organizations connect to us machine-to-machine.”
LeoLabs is a lean operation with eight employees and radar sites the firm manages remotely. “Our network of radars collect data that we feed automatically into a cloud-based platform for processing and dissemination to customers,” Ceperely said. “As this network grows, the cloud-based platform will scale to reflect more observations, accuracy, and add redundancy.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of SpaceNews magazine.