Guardians of Low Earth Orbit

Written

Guardians of Low Earth Orbit

A Stanford entrepreneur is helping the fast-growing commercial space industry navigate a zero-gravity obstacle course.
Alan DeClerck | Drew Kelly

So much junk is floating around in low Earth orbit (LEO) that NASA occasionally has to reroute the International Space Station to avoid collisions, and at least once herded the crew into the attached Soyuz spacecraft in case the orbiting scientists had to escape when the station was in the path of onrushing debris.

Of the estimated 500,000 debris pieces larger than a marble — nonfunctional spacecraft, abandoned launch vehicle stages, mission-related and fragmentation debris — more than 20,000 are larger than a softball. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for even untraceable flecks of paint to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. The risks from collision will only get worse as new scientific missions, commercial constellations, and manned spacecraft enter service in LEO.

Alan DeClerck, who received his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1985, began working last year with Menlo Park-based startup LeoLabs to help the commercial space industry navigate that high-altitude obstacle course. His partners in the new venture include former engineers and radar scientists from SRI International, a large research lab that spun off LeoLabs as a commercial enterprise.

The company’s two completed radar arrays in Alaska and Texas track more than 1,000 objects per hour, and its partners and customers access that data through a LeoLabs software platform. The company plans to build four more debris-tracking radar facilities near the equator and the polar regions by 2019.

“There’s a gold rush to put new satellite services up there, but the question is how can we secure these service against a backdrop of manmade debris moving at 17,500 mph?” says DeClerck, who is the company’s vice president of business development and strategy. “Achieving what’s known as space situational awareness is critical for defense, communications, and human space flight.”

We asked DeClerck for an overview of the startup’s launch.

How did the idea for LeoLabs come about?

Nearly a decade ago, a couple of our founders working at SRI got a National Science Foundation grant to build this radar array near Fairbanks, Alaska, to help study the ionosphere. Mixed in their scientific data was unexpected “noise,” which turned out to be the debris flying in low Earth orbit. That’s when they realized there’s a lot of value in being able to detect and track that debris, because that area between 400 and 2,000 kilometers [250 and 1,250 miles] above the planet is critical for commercial services on Earth as well as for staging missions deeper into space.

So they spotted a commercial opportunity?

Everybody wants this data. We’re seeing interest because there’s no one else doing what we’re doing, and the timing is great because everyone is going into LEO with new services. Commercial firms need debris mitigation plans for their satellites. Government space agencies want the data for situational awareness and regulatory reasons. After launch, space debris is the number one operational risk, and those operations are really important to the security of the country because so much of our security relies on satellites. There’s billions of investment dollars at stake, so the market for us is considerable.

How does LeoLabs’ mission differ from the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center?

There’s billions of investment dollars at stake, so the market is considerable.
Alan DeClerck

LeoLabs is a source of data. NASA takes advantage of multiple sources to manage and secure U.S. spacecraft and satellites. They also use Air Force data from a public catalog of debris. The Air Force is helping the commercial industry because of a 2009 collision between a Soviet satellite and a U.S.-built commercial satellite that created thousands and thousands of pieces of debris. That highlighted the need for better collision-avoidance data. While our mission is commercial, we believe our data and services will be of interest across the space industry, even the insurance industry.

The insurance industry?

Absolutely. What’s driving the situation today is operational survivability. The big commercial space companies today are putting up entire constellations of satellites, and risk management shapes the investment climate. SpaceX is putting up 4,400 satellites. OneWeb is putting up almost 1,000. And you’ve got companies like Blue Origin that want to do human space flight. Those big entities have public shareholders, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure conditions are safe and the risks are understood. So we’re building the network that provides the ability to map space in LEO.

What unique startup challenges did LeoLabs face?

Usually, it’s the technical and execution risks that challenge startups. But we have long experience on the team, and the problem we’re solving is clear. Even with our brilliant team, the challenge I noticed when I walked in the door was to articulate the big vision and to tell the market that we’re doing foundational global mapping data for LEO.

Walk me through LeoLabs’ venture funding process.

Our first round of funding was $4 million, and for that we were able to build the Texas radar facility, and put it up in six months within that budget. That certainly turned heads in the industry. We’ll be going out for another round in the second half of this year. For the remaining stations, depending on where in the world we’ll put them, those will also be in the single-digit millions. This is a whole new set of economics for the space industry.

Why do you need more tracking stations?

The more stations, the more often you see things. If you only see an object once a week it’s hard to project an accurate orbit, and you need it to be accurate because it has to be actionable for operators. With our Alaska and Texas sites we already cover 95% of the debris orbits. We’ll get the additional 5% once we have the equatorial and polar stations up and running. Then we’ll be able to see a quarter-million small objects every two to three hours, predict their orbit within 50 meters, and give actionable data to the satellite operators.

Then what?

Then we have the opportunity to provide a data platform based on our data stream. And people can innovate in ways we can’t even imagine. Remember when Google Earth first emerged? It was cool, but then Google presented it as a platform, and the next thing you know agriculture, traffic reports, all sorts of applications were built on top of that data feed. Similarly, we can empower universities, startups, and app builders with space data.

What were you looking for when you signed on with LeoLabs?

I was looking for a brilliant, close-knit team pursuing a big idea. At LeoLabs, we have astrophysicists on the development team, and even an ex-astronaut, brilliant folks who know how to translate data into orbits and build cool stuff. So obviously I valued technical competence. We’re also looking for people who brought the same spirit. Maybe that’s not the right word, but our founding team is smart, team-oriented, and humble. Everybody has passed that test.

What books influenced your decision to join LeoLabs at this stage of your career?

One is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck. She’s had so much impact with her notion that life is not an either/or proposition. The other is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport. It makes the case that shallow skills — doing spreadsheets, using social media — don’t matter as much as developing the ability to learn something hard quickly, to go deep on something. With LeoLabs, I have the opportunity to go deep — on space data, on the physics of LEO, and on an emerging ecosystem.

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