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New space junk radar in central Otago detects debris as small as two centimetres

In the near-emptiness of central Otago's Maniototo, a Kiwi space radar is being launched.

The radar, run by Leolabs, can find pieces of space junk in orbit that are as small as 2 centimetres.

Leolabs co-founder Dan Ceperley called the technology "absolutely critical", adding that the space industry "is going through a revolution right now".

"We're seeing thousands of new satellites being launched into space, hundreds of new companies delivering innovative new services, and we've got to keep those satellites safe," Mr Ceperley explained on TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.

"If we create debris, it's up there for decades or centuries, so our fundamental mission is tracking all of that and making sure that nobody runs into it."

Currently, only around five per cent, or 13,000 objects, are being tracked in space, he said.

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Worldwide, ambitious space missions have kicked off to Mars and even the Sun. Source: 1 NEWS

"It's all man-made. It's old satellites, it's rocket bodies, it's pieces of satellites, and we're going to be tracking another 250,000 pieces, and that starts with this radar."

Mr Ceperley explained that the kinetic energy from being hit by a 2-centimetre piece of space junk is "like hitting a piano at 60 miles an hour".

"If you get hit by that small piece of debris, it’ll turn your satellite into a cloud of debris, so not only have you lost the satellite, you've then created a mess for your other satellites and for other people who want to use space as well.

"This new space revolution, it's doing great things, lots of new services, and with a bit more active management, we can make sure it's safe and space is clear for future generations to use."

Mr Ceperley said the radar, located in the small town of Naseby, "operates around the clock" to send out "pulses of radio waves up into space, listens for the echoes".

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Based in Central Otago, it'll be the first radar of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Source: 1 NEWS

He compared the echoes from space objects to "a little bit like echolocation for a bat", which "send out chirps of sound and listen for the echoes coming back". 

"We send out chirps of radio waves and listen for the echoes coming back."

He explained that the radar watches a satellite or piece of debris, which makes a full lap around the earth every 90 minutes, for several seconds as it passes the radar, which then gives Leolabs enough information to predict where the object will be over the next few hours.

Leolabs then uses other radars to track the debris further, before predicting where it will be several hours later. That information is then compared with their data to see if the debris will come near any satellites.

The company then sends the satellite operators alerts, generally sent several days ahead of time.

"With sufficient warning, they can simply move their satellites," he said.

However, Leolabs is not just working with satellite operators, but also "regulators, space agencies and the insurance industry because they’ve never had this information before".

"It's really critical for them to understand which policies and which procedures and technologies are working well, and which ones aren't and need to be updated."

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The space radar detects space junk as small as 2cm, Leolabs co-founder Dan Ceperley told Breakfast. Source: Breakfast