Investing in Space

Space debris tracker LeoLabs unveils automated collision alert service for satellites

Key Points
  • Space junk is a growing problem due to the steadily increasing number of objects and debris in space.
  • Start-up LeoLabs unveiled a service on Wednesday that will send alerts in real-time to help satellite and spacecraft operators to avoid crashing into debris or each other in space.
  • "This is the first fully-automated collision avoidance service," LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley told CNBC.
A visualization by LeoLabs of the possible collision of two defunct spacecraft in January 2020.
LeoLabs

Space start-up LeoLabs unveiled a service on Wednesday that will send alerts in real-time to help satellite and spacecraft operators to avoid crashing into debris or each other in space.

"This is the first fully-automated collision avoidance service," LeoLabs CEO Dan Ceperley told CNBC.

Space junk is a growing problem due to the steadily increasing number of objects and debris in space, which the U.S. Department of Commerce last year noted is making collisions and near misses more common. Ceperley said that there are about "five debris events per year that are reported," such as the near miss of two defunct spacecraft in the sky above Pittsburgh in January.

In all, there are as many as 200,000 objects whizzing around the Earth, according to data analysis firm AGI. The estimate includes pieces as small as two centimeters.

Even a piece of plastic that small would be deadly to a spacecraft, as objects in Low Earth Orbit are moving at thousands of miles per hour. Additionally, companies like SpaceX and Amazon plan to launch thousands more satellites in the years ahead.

"LEO's getting both congested and dynamic, so collision avoidance is supposed to help all these organizations operate and keep their risks manageable," Ceperley said.

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LeoLabs offers tracking and space situational awareness services, with an online database that gives a visualization of the thousands of satellites in space currently. The company has previously partnered with satellite operators including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Maxar, Planet Labs and Black Sky.

While the company has offered other tracking services previously, Ceperley said its new "Collision Avoidance" service represents the culmination of LeoLabs' work over the last four years. While Ceperley declined to disclose pricing details, the cost of subscription will be based off of the number of satellites an organization has in space. LeoLabs sees a wide market of users for the service, ranging from the "megaconstellations" of SpaceX and Amazon to cube satellites launched by startups or research groups.

"It takes risk off the table," Ceperley said.

LeoLabs' collision avoidance service uses the company's three radar stations to provide around the clock tracking and alerts. Ceperley said the service will automatically provide alerts as far as seven days in advance of a possible collision, through a web service that customers can use from any device, including a smartphone.

LeoLabs' Kiwi Space Radar was set up in Central Otago, New Zealand, in 2019. It is the first in the world to track space debris smaller than 10 cm.
LeoLabs

Currently, the U.S. government sends satellite operators a "conjunction data message" about possible collisions, but Ceperley said those reports are limited and not in real-time.

"What's really important for the decision makers and the stakeholders is easy-to-understand reports about the situation that lays out not only the risks but why you're confident in the ultimate decisions you make about how to operate your satellite fleet," Ceperley said.

LeoLabs has a fourth radar site under construction, with plans for two more next year, to bring the company's total to six. Additionally, the company's operations have not been disrupted by the coronavirus crisis, as it's largely automated.

"We don't have people at the radars, we don't have people in the central Operations Center. Our system has been continuing to deliver data and services throughout this pandemic," Ceperley said.

LeoLabs' most recent round of funding raised $13 million, with Airbus Ventures and WERU Investment leading the round, joined by Space Angels and Horizons Ventures.

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