LeoLab’s space monitoring radar facility in Collie, Western Australia opened for business in January 2023. (LeoLabs)

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Air Force’s innovation hub, AFWERX, has awarded LeoLabs a contract to demonstrate a new radar system aimed at tracking objects in very low Earth orbit (VLEO), the company announced Wednesday.

Dan Ceperley, the company’s founder and now chief operating officer, told Breaking Defense that VLEO — typically defined as between 150 and 350 kilometers in altitude — is increasingly being used, including by Russia and China.

Russia’s “zombie sat“, Resurs-P, that suddenly in 2022 woke up after years of inactivity and began maneuvering, “was technically at kind of the upper end of VLEO [at] like 330 kilometers,” he said. China’s Shiyan-25 Earth observation technology demonstrator launched in June 2023 and the new Chutian-001 experimental remote sensing satellite launched on May 21 likewise are stationed in VLEO, he said.

But Ceperley noted that the company first became concerned about keeping tabs on VLEO back in 2019 when India tested an anti-satellite missile that destroyed one of the country’s own birds at about 283 kilometers.

“[T]hat was one of the first indications we got of like, oh my gosh, we need to be monitoring things lower than we were,” he said.

AFWERX granted LeoLabs a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II contract for $1.245 million to build an “S-band-D Direct Radiating Array (DRA),” the LeoLabs announcement elaborated. That radar will help “enhance tracking of non-cooperative launches, smaller orbital debris, and objects in Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO),” said LeoLabs CEO Tony Frazier.

Ceperley said that opposed to LeoLabs’s current radars that look “like a skateboard half pipe,” the new S-band-D radar “looks a lot more like the standard, big phased arrays, you know, that the US government likes to build. … Like a big square.” One advantage of the design, he explained, is that it is modular so the company can scale the size up or down depending on a customer’s needs and cost cap — with smaller, cheaper radars key to tracking things orbiting just above the Earth’s atmosphere.

“This is actually becoming really important for the topics of VLEO and finding newly launched satellites, because in those scenarios, you need a lot of radars so they can’t steer around your sites, and so you can find them fast. But you don’t need big radars,” he said. “So, instead, this technology actually enables us to build a large number of small radar sites.”

Objects in VLEO are “closer to the Earth, so the patch of sky you see is smaller” than with larger radars, Ceperley explained. “So you just need more radars to kind of get that coverage — make it so there’s not a gap in the network.”