LeoLabs to Provide Space Surveillance Service to Japan’s Ministry of Defense
WASHINGTON: Japan’s Department of Defense has contracted LeoLabs to provide space surveillance services for Low Earth Orbit — a first for the U.S. company whose only foreign customers so far have been civilian space agencies, CEO Dan Ceperley said at Breaking Defense.
“This is a huge step forward for Japan and for LeoLabs,” he said in an interview. “It is a great recognition that LEO is growing rapidly. It is of national importance. It is commercially important. And we need to have more eyes to the sky.
LeoLabs, which has previously worked with US military researchers and runs a public LEO space object tracking dashboard, will provide the Japan Air Self-Defense Force with data on the location of satellites and space debris in low Earth orbit. (LEO), warnings of potential collisions and even formation, according to the company’s announcement today. The “multi-million” dollar contract was routed through ITOCHU Aviation Co., Ltd, a subsidiary of ITOCHU Corporation, one of Japan’s largest “sogo shosha”, which are mega-corporations marketing a wide variety of goods and services.
“That’s a big part of the benefit,” Ceperley said, explaining that Japanese military personnel will train on “an actual operating system” for space situational awareness (SSA) – rather than in a simulated environment.
“We provide security services to 60% of all satellites in low Earth orbit, and they are under contract using our security services. We have supported the launch of more than 50% of all active satellites in low Earth orbit,” he said. “This is active operational duty for LEO, and being trained means you are actually training for the realities of the space environment and the space industry.”
LeoLabs currently has six radars located at sites in Alaska, Texas, New Zealand and Costa Rica. By the end of this year, Ceperley said, the company will add four more radars at additional sites in Australia and the Azores in the Atlantic. The radar network can now keep tabs on space objects up to 10 centimeters in diameter, but LeoLabs has big plans to improve its capabilities for searching and tracking even smaller debris in the future.
Ceperley noted that the debris tracked by commercial companies and governments today is only about 10% of all space debris up there that can damage a satellite.
“The analogy we like to use is that if you’re driving down the highway, with what you can see right now, everyone sees trucks, but they don’t see cars, they don’t see motorcycles. You think you are safe and you just aren’t,” he added.
The Japanese government, including the Ministry of Defense and the Japanese space agency JAXA, have been making every effort to enhance its SSA capabilities over the past five years or so.
The Ministry of Defense has steadily increased its budget for space activities in general, but with a strong focus on SSA, since 2019. In 2022, the Ministry of Defense requested 84 billion yen (657 million dollars) for all space-related activities, including 1.89 billion yen. ($14.9 million) for a new laser ranging system to help measure the location of space debris, according to a January report from the Japan Times.
The Air Force established its first operational space unit, creatively named the First Space Operations Squadron, in May 2020, tasked with operating a network of ground-based radars and providing avoidance data which are expected to become fully operational in 2023. The Army currently operates four ground-based J/FPS-5 radars optimized for air and ballistic missile defense, but with space tracking capabilities. According to a study by the French Institute of International Relations in Paris [PDF]the MoD intends to build a new, more capable radar facility as well as launch an optical satellite for SSA between 2024 and 2028.
This unit has the specific mission of cooperating with JAXA and the United States. Japan signed a cooperation agreement with Space Command in 2021 and now has a liaison officer at the Multinational Collaboration Office at Vandenberg SFB.
A second space operation is planned to keep tabs on electronic interference with Japanese satellites later this year, according to several Japanese news reports.
Meanwhile, Fujitsu Ltd. announced last month that it had completed the development and delivery of an analysis system for JAXA to enable it to predict and report potential collisions in orbit. JAXA operates a ground-based radar at Kamisaibara to monitor LEO and a telescope at Bisei for geosynchronous orbit tracking, as well as the Tsukaba Space Data Center near Tokyo – with system updates expected to become operational this year , according to the JAXA website.