Last week, LeoLabs officially unveiled the latest radar in its global network — the Costa Rica Space Radar. This post will take a closer look at this important addition to our operational capabilities for tracking objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
The Costa Rica Space Radar is located in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica, and was built by LeoLabs with local guidance and logistical support from the government of Costa Rica and our partners at Ad Astra Rocket Company. For us, choosing Costa Rica was a strategic investment and crucial for enabling space sustainability for generations to come.
On April 22, 2021, LeoLabs hosted an inaugural ceremony at the radar site, with special guest attendees including Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. LeoLabs announced the completion and full operational status of the S-band radar after being built and deployed in a record nine months.
The Power of S-Band Radars
The Costa Rica Space Radar is the second of LeoLabs’ advanced S-band radar systems, following the deployment of the Kiwi Space Radar in New Zealand in December 2019. Our S-band radars provide sensitivities to detect objects as small as a golf ball at an altitude of 1200km. However, a single S-band radar at one location on the Earth is not sufficient to accurately track and maintain custody of hundreds of thousands of such small objects; for this, a global network of S-band radars is required. The two radars, along with the future radars to be constructed by LeoLabs in the next two years, allow for such global coverage.
In searching for the location of our fourth radar, one chief requirement was to achieve equatorial coverage for tracking objects in low-inclination orbits. Prior to the new radar, LeoLabs could track objects with inclinations higher than ~30 degrees as visible by our Midland Space Radar in Texas. The new radar (located at latitude of 10 degrees North with significant Southward visibility), LeoLabs has near-universal coverage for all types of orbits in LEO.
Though the Costa Rica Space Radar only recently became operational less than one month ago, we’ve already shown the ability to track more than 97% of all LEO objects in the public catalog during that time (approximately 16,000 objects).
One great example of this new low-inclination coverage is none other than the Hubble Space Telescope, well known for its contribution to deepening our knowledge of the cosmos and capturing humanity’s imagination. With an orbital inclination of 28 degrees, Hubble is now reliably tracked 3–4 times per day by the Costa Rica Space Radar, with average uncertainties of just a few tens of meters.
X Marks the Spot
Each LeoLabs S-band radar system is actually two separate co-located one-dimensional radars working in unison. For the Kiwi Space Radar in New Zealand, the two radars are situated parallel to one another, but for the Costa Rica Space Radar, they are perpendicular. This creates a unique “X” shaped field of view, designed specifically for its near-equatorial location. With one system facing the North-East and the other facing the North-West, their right-angle geometry is optimized to ensure that objects in all orbital inclinations are captured frequently — from equatorial to polar orbits.
More Radars, Better Services
Of course, the new radar tracks objects in all orbital inclinations (not just low-inclination), thereby improving revisit rates for all objects in our catalog. Our highest revisit rates for well-tracked objects in polar orbits are now near seven passes per day. The increase in the number of measurements will impact all our partners and customers as each of our services, such as tracking and monitoring, collision avoidance, or early launch tracking will leverage more accurate and frequent data.
Though we now have full global coverage of all LEO orbits with the Costa Rica Space Radar, we’re just getting started. We’ll continue to add more radars to our global network, significantly expanding the size of the object catalog to include previously untracked small debris. With each addition, the features in LeoLabs services will follow suit with better tracking accuracy, more frequent revisit times, and higher cadence of data product updates. This will enable unparalleled levels of performance and accuracy for satellite operations, Space Domain Awareness, and Space Traffic Management.
Written by Moataz AbdelAzim, LeoLabs Commercial Sales Manager