SAN FRANCISCO – LeoLabs plans to expand its global network of space-tracking radars to the Azores archipelago, an autonomous region about 1,500 kilometers off Portugal’s Atlantic coast.
The new S-band phased-array radar, which is scheduled to come online in early 2022, will improve the “timeliness and accuracy” of LeoLabs’ global coverage because the company does not operate radars at similar longitudes, Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs CEO and co-founder, told SpaceNews.
“The Azores, specifically, is very critical because it offers coverage of the North Atlantic and Europe, giving us the ability to track all the debris and the satellites in that region,” Ceperley said.
Because the new radar will be capable of tracking objects as small as 2 centimeters in diameter, it also will help LeoLabs keep tabs on small debris.
“We want to take that small debris off the table in terms of risk to satellite operators,” Ceperley said.
LeoLabs currently operates six phased-array radars at sites in Alaska, Texas, New Zealand and Costa Rica.
When evaluating new sites, LeoLabs searches not only for appropriate locations but also for relationships with organizations seeking to play a role in the growing space economy.
“When we put up a radar, it’s there for 20 years,” Ceperley said. “We like to go places where we’re well aligned, everybody’s excited about space and we can join this growing mix of space companies and endeavors.”
LeoLabs found that community in the Azores, where the firm is working closely both with the Portuguese Space Agency and the Azores regional government, said Alan DeClerck, LeoLabs vice president of business development.
The Portuguese Space Agency, established in 2019, is seeking to build a spaceport in the Azores. Portugal also is active in the European Space Agency and the European Union’s space activities, DeClerck said.
In recent years, ESA leaders have highlighted the threat posed by orbital debris and established a debris mitigation program that includes one of the world’s first active debris removal missions.
Swiss start-up ClearSpace SA is working under an ESA contract to capture and remove from orbit an Arianespace Vega rocket payload adapter.
Ceperley sees an important role for LeoLabs data in future debris removal services.
“With the data we produce, you can highlight the riskiest satellites or pieces of debris up there and either prioritize them to get removed or help a company like Clean Space or Astroscale close the business case for removing those,” Ceperley said.
LeoLabs licenses data it collects and offers service agreements to satellite operators, government regulators, defense agencies and insurance companies.
While constructing the Azores Space Radar, LeoLabs will be investing in all those relationships in Europe, Ceperley said. “This radar is symbolic step into that market,” he added,.